A Travellerspoint blog

Cruising Ha Long

A weekend in Ha Long Bay

Booking a trip to Ha Long Bay can be a minefield. The internet and guidebooks are full of people getting scammed by paying money for a luxury boat and ending up in a rust tub. People we had met had explained horror stories of people getting beaten up by hotel owners or of being charged for breakages that did not exist. Tales of food poisoning are rife. Luckily we avoided all of this and the Cristina Cruise that we booked involved a beautiful cabin on the upper deck with the poshest bathroom we had had throughout the trip and some entertaining company thrown into the mix.

You have to be pleased when the tour guide who is going to take you on a boat trip for three days is called Duck. At least it suggests that he is at home on the water should there be a repeat of the well publicised sinking of a year ago in the same area. And it was in these capable hands that we set off on our three day trip of Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long is recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The bay is situated in the North of Vietnam and is characterised by hundreds of majestic cliffs standing aloft from the middle of the sea. Cruising through the cliff dotted landscape whilst nibbling noodles and gazing through the glass walls of the onboard dining room was a memorable lunch time! Our boat was even equipped with a sundeck full of sun beds for an afternoon snooze in the sun. Unfortunately this sun deck was not much good as it was absolutely freezing and drizzling in a way that is generally quite detrimental to soaking up vitamin D.

On the boat we quickly created a group camaraderie with the other passengers. What is the best foundation for new friendships? An overwhelming shared hatred of something. In our case it was 'The American'. This is not to say we have a particular dislike for Americans. In fact on this trip we have met some really nice and funny Americans. It was just this one American on our trip that we all hated enough not to even learn his name. This American was loud, obnoxious, rude and ignorant to the degree he asked me the question, 'Why do the Vietnamese hate the Americans so much? What have the Americans ever done?'. When responding that it was likely that it was something probably to do with the Vietnamese War he responded, 'Was there a war? I've never heard of it!' Throw into the equation that this guy was a self made millionaire and had retired at the age of 35 from the business of “Offering credit to people who we know cant afford to pay it back so that we can take their car and stuff” and our communal hatred was confirmed. That's right people.... a loan shark! Luckily for the rest of us, whenever the boat stopped at a place of interest he went wandering off to find beer and a “massage with a happy ending”. This meant we had plenty of time to mock him between ourselves with as much wit as we could manage.

Day one on the 'junk boat' brought us to number of caves and beaches, which is probably obligatory on visiting any exotic destination. The first stop was a huge cave, previously inhabited by the French military prior to the war of independence. It was large, airy and filled with stalactites and stalagmites. As we strolled around the cave with our new found friends, Andy suggested that the cave would make an excellent club, perhaps similar in style to that found in the 'Canteena' scene in Stars Wars ' A new Hope'. Annie quipped that she would especially like to see Darth Vader on the decks, whilst John wanted to see Jabba the hut as a bouncer! When we got to the point where the ewoks were glass collectors and Princess Leah in one of the caves as a pole dancer we thought it had all gone too far and left the cave sharpish before one of us could enquire as to the cost to rent the place for the night to put our money making plan into action. Worryingly we also had with us a Swiss Banker who was quite enthusiastic about backing the scheme with investment.

After zooming round the cliffs and caves in a sea kayak and nearly getting capsized in the process by a passing speed boat we returned to our luxury cruise (ooh er!) to engage in a nights entertainment Vietnamese style. Now in true Asian style that involves one main thing... you guessed it, Kareoke! To add an air of occasion to the party, the Captain of the boat started off the singing. For the time that he did his party piece (eight tunes in a row) I am not sure who was driving the boat. Although to be honest, I observed that even when he was at the helm he tended to be reading the newspaper and driving the boat with his feet so it probably did not make much difference he was away from his post.

The effect that Kareoke can have on the Vietnamese cannot be understated. As soon as those terrible keyboard string backing tracks come on, every local in the room gets a glassy look of sheer pleasure and seems to have an involuntary reaction to clap along and mime the words, whether they know the song or not. Adding to the excitement on the boat was the fact that after each song, the Kareoke programme gave the singer a percentage rating as to how well they had done. This added an extra dimension that the Captain, the first mate, the tour guide and the bar lady could not get enough of.... Who was driving that boat!!!!

After showing scepticism at the Kareoke eventually everyone joined in. The star of the show was Swiss Banker Armin, who after insisting all day that he would never sing kareoke spent most of the evening throwing himself to his knees and shouting into the mike to every power ballad in the Kareoke book. When Andy got 100% for a Nirvana rendition the place went wild and the Vietnamese treated Andy like a local hero. Eventually at 10pm and a million beers later, the party was politely asked to quieten down so that the Singaporian granny who had somehow ended up on the Kareoke cruise could get some sleep.

This left the rest of us to engage in a slightly quieter game of 'Oreo Challenge'... a game learnt from 'India's Minute to Win It' and soon to take over the world. The aim of the game, to get an Oreo biscuit from the middle of your forehead to your mouth using only the muscles in your face. Everyone on the tour loved it. The bar lady loved it. The Captain loved it. I can't complete it.

A hangover and a night in a Cruise Cabin later, we arrived in Cat Ba Island where we were instructed the next activity was a trek up a mountain. After the first 30 steps I was slipping like a spider on roller skates on the wet ground and I decided that the boys would be more successful without me. I retreated back down to the start to spend the morning drinking hot Vietnamese coffee with other people either with my inept sense of balance or an enormous hangover who also thought the idea of trekking up a wet mountain before 10am was a ridiculous way to spend a day. Andy and John returned to inform me that whilst the trip gave a beautiful view, I would have also caused my self a beautiful injury by attempting it. Filled with caffeine we continued to Cat Ba town which had about the same amount of charm as Blackpool in the week after the illuminations have been turned off.

After a quick trip to the local Monkey Island (the first of many we have visited on this trip) where Monkeys litter the beach entertaining themselves with stealing the food and drink of passing tourists, we did what is the obligatory activity when visiting a less than exciting town, go out to the nearest bar, play drinking games and talk cod shit with the people you are with. After making new friends with the barman Anthony and his boyfriend, and luckily managing to get rid of 'The American' for a night by suggesting there might be another massage parlour in town he hadn't visited (turned out it was actually a floating restaurant that he made a fool of himself in) we headed home in an inebriated state to face the hangover again the next morning. Needless to say we were detoxing after Halong!

A trip back on the boat to Ha Long City and we were back on the road to Hanoi with just enough bus time to meet some friendly Melbournians and play various games of 'would you rather'. A hillarious few days that wont be forgotten in a hurry! On to the next of the big 'H's of Vietnam.... Hue.

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Breaking into Vietnam

Hanoi

After drunkenly booking a flight from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok during 'wine and cheese night' in Cambodia (Lucy, Will, Andre... why did non of you stop us?) we found ourselves heading to the Vietnamese border for Hanoi with two weeks to sprint down the coast.
We had started to think Vietnam didn't want us after our problems acquiring a visa in Vientiene and the cancellation of the bus meaning that Andy had to sleep in the under seat luggage compartment from Laos to Vietnam, but we were prepared to force ourselves upon the country. Expecting further hold ups, and half expecting to see our photos behind the security counter at the border with 'No Entry' written above them, we instead went through the easiest and quickest border crossing we have perhaps experienced in South East Asia. No 'stamping fee' or 'tea money' changed hands, our visas were quickly stamped and approved and after a quick scramble to locate our passports in the pile of 'foreign ones' that they unceremoniously dumped on a public table for collection we were in! Vietnam tried to hold us out but damn it they did not succeed! We entered the country with big smiles and proud stances clutching our entry stamped passports with a sense of celebration; we had finally made it!

We were however wildly unprepared with no guidebook upon our arrival in Hanoi. Andy had previously sacrificed our guidebook when angry at the fact it had an overly substantial East Timor section that was both irrelevant to our trip and pretty hefty weight wise. However, the excitement of a new country and a new challenge literally had Andy shaking with excitement on our arrival! With the quick purchase of a $3 photocopied Lonely Planet Guide, which was only missing the pages on the top 1-8 of the top 15 things to do in Vietnam.. the top eight cant be that good anyway, we made a hasty plan over a beautiful Vietnamese coffee and hit the streets of cosmopolitan Hanoi Old Town.
We had heard negative things about Hanoi from those that had passed through. In addition a certain friend of ours of Vietnamese descent (no names there then) had also told us to spend no time there and instead head further South. However, I have never been more glad that we entirely disregarded all the advice we had heard. Hanoi was a buzzing and charming city full of sights and smells that were distinctly Vietnamese. From bustling carts full of dried squid, conical hats atop ladies on bicycles to Beer Hoi on the street for 20p a glass. The city is centred around a lake with an island temple in the middle and it was from here that we got our first real viewpoint of the city.

We also got our first introduction to a distinctly Vietnamese tradition, the pre wedding photographs that each couple have in the full wedding day garb. As we walked along the lake (around the lake, we had got into Vietnam but we had not acquired the powers of walking on water) there was a different couple in all their glory posing for their photographs. As one couple posed in a prime location, a queue of bridesmaids, brides, grooms and photographers appeared waiting for their turn and looking bored as they munched on crisps with denim jackets or sweatshirts over their wedding finery. Once they reached the front of the queue the couples donned looks of fanatic love as they gazed at each other for the photographs. Strange, seeing as these were the couples that two minutes before had been bickering in Adidas tracksuit jackets over the last wotsit. For anyone visiting Hanoi, I cannot recommend enough the joy of sitting by the lake watching this charade of forced romance. People watching at its finest!

Along with hitting a few of the museums we had one real plan in Hanoi. With my everlasting fascination with Communist Leaders and Andy's love for the weird and wonderful one thing stood out.... going to visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself and take in the spectacle of his preserved body.

After the hustle with the tuk tuk drivers we instead took a metered taxi to the resting place of 'Uncle Ho' and were suitably impressed when we pulled up to an impressive building fronted with a sculptured lawn in an imposing grid pattern which gave the building a certain grandeur. Unfortunately when we began making our way down the paved grid lines towards what we thought was the entrance we began to realise we had made an enormous mistake. Clearly, these paved grids were not paths but decoration. The lawn was no garden but apparently sacred. We discovered this only by getting right to the middle of the grid before being spotted by the angry whistle patrol. Suddenly guards in bright white caps with equally bright shiny whistles unleashed an orchestra of warning whistles at us. As we had reached the centre of the grid we became confused as to the best way to get out of the situation and began wildly running up and down the grid pattern to find a suitable way to get off the sacred lawn. For some reason, doing a 180 turn and returning up the straight path we had come did not occur to us. After a strange and wonderful game of cat and mouse we managed to get out of the grid and returned to the road confused as to what had just happened and with a new found wariness for a man with a whistle.

After eventually finding the entrance and following a bizarre collection of security points which each seemed to have their own individual requirements about what size bag was acceptable. We entered the tomb. Filing silently through dark corridors we suddenly entered the square room resting place of Uncle Ho. Now unless Ho Chi Minh was actually made of Styrofoam when he was alive, I have some doubts that the 'body' we saw had at some point been the fellow with the cheery looking beard. However, the reverence from the other Vietnamese visitors laid pay to the claim that this was Uncle Ho and not Faux Chi Minh as I initially suspected. Andy again managed to upset the guards by dawdling and was silently instructed in the art of turning a corner which brought us back into the light and with a strange sensation.
It was only after speaking to my Grandma on the phone on the evening of our visit that I realised what a strange activity this was. After explaining our days activity my Grandma responded, 'Well you are certainly doing some strange things.... visiting a corpse before breakfast on a Tuesday'. I had no real response to that. She was right. It was strange.

The other stop in Hanoi was the excellent Museum of Vietnamese Ethnology. By large the museums we have visited in South East Asia have been traditional affairs full of glass cases full of fragments of pots and board after board of information misspelled (sometimes hilariously so) of English explanation. As interesting as the subject may be, this approach more often than not kills the exciting history it is trying to educate the visitor on. Therefore we were so happy when visiting the Museum of Ethnology that it had taken a different approach and was not only insightful but had things to play with (an important aspect of all museums I think). Learning about the cultural minorities in Vietnam we had an educational wander through each district within one building and saw brilliant photography, sculptures and models of houses and technology. But it was in the garden where the excitement started! With swings and tightropes, full size replicas of traditional straw houses to climb about in and massive steps to climb to get up in the first place it was fun for kids and big kids alike. We went home thoroughly educated and massively entertained.

Impressed with the start of Vietnam and eager for more we undertook the mine field of booking a trip to Ha Long Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world....

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged hanoi ho_chi_minh Comments (0)

Phonsovan

One of the most mysterious and dangerous places on earth...

rain 14 °C

This area in the North Eastern Laos to the Vietnamese border in considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. This is not because of natural disasters or because of axe murderers as fortuately both are very rare in this area. When passing the prison in fact, the driver informed us that the worst crime regularly committed is stealing someone elses buffalo. As we have no buffalo (yet!) then we were unlikely to become victims of this prevelant crime as we stopped for three days in Phonsovan.

The reason for the danger is the amount of unexploded ordinance and artilery in the area left over from the American campaign against Laos in what is termed the 'Secret War'. During the Vietnam war, the USA were worried about Vietnamese fighters using Laos to set up bases or travel through to get to different parts of Vietnam without meeting USA blockades. The USA therefore carpet bombed Laos as a way to root out the insurgents. We were informed that there was more bombing in Laos during the period than were dropped on the whole of Britain during the Second World War!

At the time of the bombing locals were forced to live in caves under the mountains to avoid the sheer amount of force being plied down on them by American caves. These bombs were not dropping on amunition factories or on major ports but were falling on villages and farmland leaving the survivors greaving and unable to provide food or sustinence for their families. When in the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) readng room I read a really poignant quote from a journalist during this time which I will paraphrase here.

"Talking to the refugees who had fled the bombing to Vietiene all had stories of loss and death. Each refugee, without exception, asked me, 'Why are they bombing us? Who are they? Do you know?"

Normal people were losing their lives without any knowledge as to who was committing these atrocities or why they were being targetted. The pain and fear that this must have caused is terrible to contemplate. Add to this that the whole bombing campaign was an entirely illegal act by the USA as it contravened a treaty which stated that Laos would remain a neutral country, and the whole campaign was kept as confidential and under strict secrecy in the USA and hidden from the world at the time.

All these years later, people are still suffering at the hands of this campaign. It is estimated that 30% of all explosives dropped on Laos during this period failed to detonate when it hit the ground and instead remained buried in farmlands, forests, hill sides and under homes just waiting for the day it would be disturbed and explode. What this means is that cluster bombs, or 'bombies' as they are locally termed, are waiting around the living areas of a rural population and are most often found when children are playing and lose their lives or farmers are ploughing they own land with a hoe and lose an arm. The week before we arrived a child lost their legs when they were hitting a stake into the ground to tie their buffalo and hit a 25 year old US cluster bomb that exploded.

A British based NGO, Mines Advisory Group along with other partners are currently working in Laos to clear as much land as possible and other measures to avoid further damage from the UXOs. They organise training for local children on the dangers of appraoching unexploded ordinance through puppet shows or art work, they train teams of bomb disposal experts from the local communities and provide them with top notch equipment, knowledge and support in order that once identified, bombs that have been located can be carefully made safe. Talking to people in the communities around the area it is clear how much impact this charity is having in the area, not just through the practicalities of making more land available, but also contributing to creating employment and sustainable communities in the area. I urge anyone who comes accross this charity to support the work they do because the money you give really does support the people who need it most!

As we were in the area and had done our research in the visitor centres we decided to head out and see some of the remnants of this campaign ourselves. We hired a guide because, when considering everything stated above, wandering without a guide in this part of Laos is unsafe and stupid. We drove up to a plateau amongst villages and farm land where the land had been left unfarmable due to the bombing. The area had just been demined and what was left that was not explodable had been ravaged by the scrap metal collectors; another dangerous activity that many villages are driven to by poverty, collecting metal with a metal detector in a landscape punctuated with active bombs. The size of the crators left by the bombs brought home the damage that had been caused and the power of these explosives. The freezing wind and fog on the plateau created an eerie and macabr atmosphere that etirely matched what we were there to learn about.

BOMB CRATER

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Next stop was a local village in the area most affected by bombing. Villagers, struggling in the aftermath of the bombing and unable to farm their lands for fear of explosives, had taken to collecting the scrap from the bombing to sell or use. Fragments of gigantic bombs made up parts of houses, ffences, cow sheds, and even planting boxes for onions! The ingenuity and desire to just get on with what they had shows the resilence of the Laos people and their flexibility to work with whatever they have and survive despite their hardships.

BOMB VILLAGE

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Next stop was slightly more cheerful as we headed to another waterfall. The guide insisted this was a trek and had decided not to warn us before we set off. Luckily we were dressed appropriately for what turned out to be an ideal walk for Andrew and a real test of self for me! A clumsy child, my sense of balance has not improved significantly since I was about 18 months old. I tend to stumble through rather than gliding and I have come to terms with that. So the walk down a steep and narrow dirt track along the side of the waterfall was a challenge to me but I survived. After a lunch by the foot of the waterfall of fresh fish and sticky rice it was time to return to the top. However, on the way up we used a different route... up the four tiers of the waterfall itself using only the rocks to climb under the rushing water and occassionally using a fallen tree trunk to walk across! I have seen this done before, if only by Baloo in the Jungle Book, and I will admit I was absolutely terrified of real risk of death halfway up. Andy jumped and pranced through like a mountain goat. However, we both made it to the top and I was proud of myself! Although Andy asked if he could have another go, I was ready to be back on dry land!!

The real incentive for our trip to Phonsovan was to visit the 'Plain of Jars'. These are a collection of over .... stone jars and lids of various sizes that scatter accross the hillsides of the nearby mountains. These jars are said to date from between 200 to 500 BC but there is no conclusive evidence as to what civilisation built these jars, how they constructed them or for what purpose they were constructed. But stuff the historical evidence! The local residents will tell you a collection of tall tales as to the answers to all of the above questions. From 16th Century wine jars to 12th century burial jars to alien intervention, each guide, guesthouse owner and man in the street will give you his definative answer! We tried out a few of theories with the jars and we can give you our perception that these jars would be very difficult to drink wine or whiskey from!
The jars themselves are strange and mysterious but it is the sheer scale of how many litter the hillsides and the impressive backdrop of mountains and rice fields that make the experience of visiting so spectacular.

PLAIN OF JARS SITE

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As we boarded our night bus to Hanoi it was time to say goodbye to Laos. This is a lovely country with some spectacular things to see and impressive places to visit. The people are friendly and travel is inexpensive. Although for me it did not hold as much charm as Cambodia I have definately been more impressed by our time in Laos and would reccommend a prolongued stop in this country rather than a rush through the main cities.

Sabaidee Laos! Good Morning Vietnam!

Posted by Annie Thornton 20.02.2012 05:04 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls plain_of_jars phonsovan bomb_village Comments (0)

A Tale of Two Cities

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

sunny 28 °C

VANG VIENG AT SUNSET
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Now when you meet anyone who has headed to Laos they tend to have the same itinerary, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Both have their assets and their attractions and after our exploration of the South we decided to get on this tourist trail and see what everyone raves about. It is clear why that this route is followed by the traveller, easy transport options, airconditioned busses and pleantiful guesthouses at reasonable prices. Each location is packed with all the facilities required to 'make easy' the travellers day; cheese and ham toasties, cable television, stalls selling Pantene and internet cafes. However, both have embraces the term 'tourist friendly' in very different ways which, in turn, entice a different kind of traveller.

There are many types of traveller treading the route in South East Asia but the by far most frequent found in Southern Thailand and Central Laos is what we have termed 'The Tubing Victims'. Other types of tourists in the area include 'The Rich French Retiree' and 'The Sex Tourist' which may appear in this blog somewhere in the future...

You can identify a 'Tubing Victim' by a series of signs. If male, they are generally wearing a vest which is emblazened with either 'Full Moon Party' or a local brand of beer. Their wrists are full of bracelets and bangles which you are sure they would never wear at home and will probably remove very quickly when they have to go back to the office or the pub with their mates to avoid ridicule. They generally have have had a terrible tattoo in a 'tribal design' when have been trashed on the Thai Islands somewhere. And, with few exceptions, each is headed to Laos "to go Tubing in Vang Vieng" or has just had an "awsome time Tubing in Vang Vieng". As with all steriotypes this is a very simplified view of what can be very complex and interesting people and on the otherside what can also be pissed up idiots who are generally unaware of what country they are in at the time. Now the 'Tubing Victim' can be found in their greatest numbers in their very unnatural habitat of Vang Vieng and the best time for spotting these interesting specimins is either at sunset when they go out in search of food and drink or at sunrise when they lollap home to sleep through the heat of the day.

After meeting a large number of Tubing Victims we were naturally quite sceptical when heading to Vang Vieng to try and understand this Tubing phenomenon. Tubing in Vang Vieng can be summarised as floating down a river on a giant pumped up tractor inner tyre. Lining the river are wooden bars on stilts accompanied by a young chap with extroadinary hand eye coordination who can throw a plastic bottle on a rope with brilliant accuracy to you as you float to catch to be pulled into his bar. The town itself is very set up for this type of tourism, and as such is a combination of bucket bars and guesthouse restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends DVDs.

However the grotty town centre is set in an absolutely fantastic scenery as floating down the river amongst mountain cliffs rising up above you on both sides cannot be matched. The ride itself is fantastic and can be seen from either boat, kayak or tube. As we were on the job to fully understand this tubing malarky we decided to get fully involved and partook in the stopping at bars, the free food and shots as you jump out of the water onto the deck (or if you are Annie, fall out of the tube into the water, splash to the deck whilst nearly losing tube entirely and then scramble without any grace at all onto the deck side). Andy was very enthused with the multiple rope swings, zip lines and giant water slides that accomany some of the bars and teaming up with a Kiwi couple we didn't see the blokes that much as they ran from getting out of the water back to the top of the water slide for another go. Andy was less enthused with this the day after when he was covered in bruises but maintains he has no regrets!

You drop your tube off as you go into the bar at the 'tube park' and then pick one up on the way out. My highlight was Andy getting left 'Tubeless' at the final bar and having to float the next 3km down the river on a childrens tube which rather than lazily float on with enough room to hold a beer, he had to fit the bottom of his bum in the middle and adjust his balance to avoid being captsised all the way down. It gave people on the shore a good laugh as well.

After the decadence of Vang Vieng and its water adventures we took to the road to Luang Prabang. Suddenly the Tubing Victims were no longer the major force on the street. This town in the stronghold of the Rich French Retiree which means less Friends DVDs but an equal amount of Cheese and Ham toasties (le croque monsier is the national French fave after all!). Where Vang Vieng is all about convenience and crass, Luang Prabang is set up for pure class. Listed as a Unesco Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is famed for its Oriental and French architecture and meandering boulevards set along the Mekong River. The city oozes character with mahogany pannelled and floored colonial villas set against palm trees and beautiful decorative temples. Luang Prabang is also home to expensive resteraunts (by Laos standards) and posh bars. Both are things I did not expect of Laos at all.

After exploring the streets of the city by foot, we wandered up to the peak to look out over the town and see the Buddha's of the Week. A Buddha for each day lines the walk to the summit and all were impressed by the view. NB. Not all were impressed with my rendition of Craig David's 7 days edited to include Buddha... "Buddha went for a drink on Monday, Buddha took me for a drink on Tuesday..." and so on. Relaxing in a herbal sauna after our walk around the city we planned our next day's activity to head out to the Khon S Waterfall.

WATERFALL PARADISE

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Now Andy accuses me of being a waterfall sceptic. He says that since I went to Iguazu Falls I am unable to appreciate any falling water without being dissapointed. However, the waterfalls outside Luang Prabang are beautiful and impressive without being the overwhelming and powerful force that was Iguazu. Wandering into a 'jungle water park' we were unsure what to expect but any park that involves walking through a bear sanctuary before arriving at the main attractions has got to be a winner. There are about 15 black bears who have been rescued from poachers and cruel captivity kept at the sanctuary by donations. The waterfalls almost fell by the wayside when we started watching the bears who incidentally have a great love for lying in hammocks, much like me and Andy!

We dragged ouselves off to the green-blue pools and drops of the waterfalls and spent the day basking in the natural coves and pools created by the water. The effect of sitting under the waterfall as it bumps into the small pools is a bit like being in a cold jacuzzi. Luckily we could always retreat back into the sun to warm up. Hearing splashes and screams Andy went again on search of a jumping point or rope swing (in the excitement his Vang Vieng bruises went forgotten) and he was not dissapointed to find a swing right out into the heart of the natural pool. I missed the first attempt on camera so whether he liked it or not, he had to go again to get this shot!

WATERFALL ESCAPADES

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All in all, both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are orientated by the rivers at their heart. Where in Vang Vieng this is for decadent recreation, Luang Prabang it is for quietly sitting by at sunset and sipping a cold drink. Andy took up his pencils and paper to capture the peaceful river scene as we prepared to leave and get back off the beaten track to Phonsavan and the mysterious Plain of Jars....

Posted by Annie Thornton 20.02.2012 04:48 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls rivers sunset laos luang_prabang tubing vang_vieng Comments (0)

Exploring Laos

Savannakhet to Vientiene...

sunny 26 °C

Savannakhet

After our adventures on the pig/goat/duck/chicken bus, we arrived in Savannakhet quite late on the Monday. Savannakhet is a trading riverside town with an international border to Thailand and has a whole host of touristy activities which are scattered around the region. It actually looks quite buzzing on an evening here with plenty of cafes, bars and clubs to go to, along with a plentiful supply of sex tourists. Swings and roundabouts after all!

In true style we sought out our own little adventure on the outskirts of town. We hired a scooter and went for a ride eastwards towards a turtle lake. The sun was shinning, the air was clean, the roads were pretty decent and we had a decent responsive scooter under our legs. The ride was fine until I felt a slight balance issue with the rear of the bike (its a man thing), so I took it slow until the next garage (also in plentiful supply). We disembarked the two wheeled motorised scooter to find the rear tyre as flat as a pancake. Thankfully a gleaming smile from a local grease monkey greeted us saying that he could help out for a measly sum of only 10,000 kip (50p)! As Annie and myself looked on with much en-trepidation, the nice mechanic flipped off the wheel and popped out the inner tube in a jiffy, then got to work on fixing the puncture. Back on the road with a fully inflated tyre once again, it occurred that we might be becoming a stereotype of our own – perhaps motorised two wheeled vehicle enthusiasts (I'm not allowed to call it a motorbike apparently because its an automatic!) or maybe just those type that like to see the real world from their own eyes.

Without knowing what to expect from turtle lake, it was set on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of nowhere! The lake wasn’t much bigger than the lake at Platt Fields Park in Manchester, or perhaps the size of a football pitch, but there was an elevated platform across to the centre of the lake which was full of tourists feeding the turtles sticky rice and prawn crackers. The turtles were huge, about the size of a car tyre - to a bus tyre (I like to be accurate with my estimations!) I reckon some of them must be a 100 years old! The turtles were impressive and liked the apparent attention, but they were incredible ugly creatures!, with warts, blemishes, green goo in their eyes and wonky unsymmetrical shells!

On the way back to Savanakhet we popped into a temple which had been heavily bombed by the Americans in 1972. A sign on the wall read ' MAG SAFE SITE', so we knew it was a safe place to walk free from bombies. All around Laos (and Cambodia) are UXO's (Unexplodeded Ordinances) which the locals call 'bombies' and basically are unexploded missiles and bombs dropped by the Americans. Apparently a third did not explode on impact and continue to kill, maim and injure thousands of people each year, so walking around places which are not cleared is just a big no no.

Back to Savannahket and the commencement of the annual Star Wars day on the laptop! Annie has never seen them before so I treated her to the whole lot in a day and a half! Now sufficiently versed in Star Wars references and quotes we set of on our bus trip to Vientiane. May the force be with you...

Vientiane

The largest city and capital of Laos, Vientiane is the French name for Viengchan. An impressive city with a charismatic feel to it. Patisseries, Wine bars, herbal saunas, monasteries and English Pubs line the streets of Vientiane. I have to say that we participated in all of the above in the two nights and three days that we were there.

The one thing we had to do in Vientiane that was of importance was to arrange our Vietnam Visa. Unfortunately and due to something called the New Year, the blimey commies were on holiday for a week – how dare they! With this in mind we skipped on to Vang Vieng for some tubing action!!!

Posted by Annie Thornton 15.02.2012 05:21 Archived in Laos Tagged turtles scooters vientiene savannakhet Comments (0)

Return of Andy!

The Lost Night in Shinanoukville and the Lovely Pictoresque Si Phan Don

Return of Andy!

Thank you for all those letters of support who have missed reading my witty and insightful blogs. I can confirm that I am back with a vengeance to give you an up to date repertoire of Laos and that lost night from Sihanousksville in Cambodia for New Years Eve. Lost night you say?, well I feel that a small part of my brain has been lost there, as I'm sure most of you also lost a few brain cells on NYE too! I've had a little bit of the 'writers block', but the thoughts and wisdom are now flowing again since having a hot shower (which are few and far between)!

Sihanoukville 30th December 2011 – 4 January 2012
What better place than the beach for a new years eve party I said to Annie, which she quickly agreed as long as we could find a place to stay. The bus journey from Battombong was quite scary, not on account of the safety aspect, but from all of the stories that people were telling us how full Sihanoukville is over NY’s. Having arrived very late, the tuc tuc man brought us to a fine establishment called GMP (or something to that effect) and a room cost $10 for a double room –result! In fact the room wasn’t great on account of several rat sightings, but it was fine over NY’s. We met some new friends whilst in SHNKV called Lucy and Will, who were interesting people from London and we went on to spend the next few weeks travelling with them.

We were aware of a big party called the water festival , which included the presence of the Cambodian Prime Minister, but felt that wasn’t really our scene. Our scene involved mass quantities of Angkor Beer, hand held fireworks, buckets of spirit induced refreshments, and a beach party with lots of people! Well, it wouldn’t be quite right if we didn’t have a proper party. With all of these seemingly complementary elements in place, the night turned out to be a bit of a blur, including swimming in the sea at quarter past midnight 1st January 2012. To make matters even more blurry, a friend who we met in Siam Reap was working behind the bar, so that meant extra large servings! Ps, always drink responsibly (http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/) .... ahem...

Me and Annie didn't see the morning after, but we did see the outside world from about 4pm, just in time for sunset! We set our sights on the 2nd January as a more positive day and decided that it was better just to write off the 1st day of 2012 as a necessary consequence. It does seem that we’ve had a few written off days, but as they say if you are to make a cake, you’ve gotta crack a few eggs.

On the 2nd, we decided to go on an island hopping boat trip to partake in some snorkelling, beach fun and general relaxing. There are actually lots of little islands located a few kilometres of the coast of Cambodia. You can also see the massive island of Phu Quoc in the distance which Vietnamese. I love snorkelling and we were taken to a few diving sites with coral reefs. Unfortunately it looked like the coral had died, and was in the process of regenerating, therefore not much activity apart from lots of pesky sea urchins and a small variety of coloured fish and Annie was upset she didn’t find Nemo. It was so hot over these few days in Shinaouksville and you don't realise how hot it is when in the water, and yes I burnt all of my back, which really stung for a few days. So for the next few weeks, I have been a factor 50 suncream nazi, and also wearing a t shirt in the pool/sea; how attractive I look..

Welcome to Laos!!

Si Phan Don and the Four Thousand Islands. Date: 17th January 2012 - 22nd January 2012
Our first port of call in Laos was the Four thousand islands which are located in the south of Laos and in the middle of the Mekong River. The Mekong River is an absolute natural wonder of the world. In the rainy season, the Mekong can be up to 14km wide here in Si Phan Don on account of the many islands and some are a few kilometres wide and perhaps 10-15km long, and some are just bushes in the river (they have to make up that 4000 number some how!). The islands are pretty self sufficient, with an economy centred around tourism, farming and fishing. and roads, and some have hills and mountains.

We opted to stay on an island called Don Det, which is a little more touristy than the rest, however we managed to find a nice little bungalow which hung over the river front. Happy with our humble abode, we set off on our bicycles for an afternoon ride to the waterfalls and the southern tip of Don Khon.

What I like about the thousand islands was the ability to do absolutely nothing and not feel guilty for achieving anything apart from utter rest and relaxation. A few beers or ice coffees by the Mekong, a few game of cards, or perhaps a little sketch of the riverside was the epitome of relief and indulgence. What a way to live your life, or perhaps it is only short lived. However, back to the real world and we can only have a few days here due to our over stay in Cambodia by a week, so we have to reduce the amount of time in Laos and Vietnam by a week or two.

On our last day in Si Phan Don, we hired some bicycles and rode around the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. We visited an amazing array of waterfalls called Khong Phopheng which were amazing. It appears that all of the Mekong River water that surrounds the islands all ends up coming through the waterfalls into a massive basin. There all huge waterfalls everywhere, so very fierce and powerful. The locals deem that the waterfalls are sacred as they believe it is the location where trapped spirits live, in between worlds and to swim in the waterfalls is forbidden. My first thoughts of swimming in these waterfalls wouldn't be of a culturally insensitive nature, but more of thought that my body would be snapped in two! Regardless of this quandary, the waterfalls are beautiful to see. The locals use fishing techniques on the smaller waterfalls, by erecting large wicker baskets across the width of the channel to catch fish. Apparently within half a day, it can catch a ton of fish! No wonder why the Mekong is so over fished! After the waterfalls, we rode down to the southern tip of Don Khon to witness the most amazing scenery in Laos (a claim of the Lao tourist office). I have to say it really was breathtaking, the photos don't really do it justice because it must be viewed by your own panoramic eyes. You can see into Cambodia from this spot and also the deep pools where more Irrawady Dolphin live, also all of the many little islands, and the massive width of the Mekong. Cycling back truly and thoroughly satisfied with our days events we settled down back at our bungalow with a nice bottle of Beer Lao with our smug grins! Truly stunning. Incidentally, I've tried nearly all of the beers in southern asia and Beer Lao is far superior (http://www.beerlao.la)!

Back on the boat to the main land, we set off northwards to Thakek by bus. The journey started on minibus to Pakxe where we transferred to a larger bus with mainly local passengers. The bus wasn’t comfy at all, and we were concerned when our luggage was loaded on the bus with us and on the back seat, instead of the undercarriage compartments, or even the roof. After about 7 hours on the bus, we stopped about 50km from Savannahket where some very strange activities took place. We realised why our bags were inside the passenger area of the bus when lots of farm vehicles rocked upto the bus with live stocks of large pigs, piglets, goats, ducks and chickens. It was really shocking to see the many hundred birds thrown into netted bags and tied up, with no space to move, all on top of each other, then tied to the roof of the bus. Then the large pigs, loaded into the the undercarriage, and the small piglets squeeling and crying into more bags on top of the bus. We was more deeply horrified to see the poor goats tied together standing upright to the top of the bus. God knows, that most of these animals probably die from stress, or undesirable squalid conditions on a speeding over loaded bus. We couldn't carry on with this journey to Thakek for another 4 hours on a bus where you can hear the sound of struggling and dying animals, so we got off in Savannahket which was only about half and hour away. I know Lao is a poor country, and I believe human life should be first priority, but I cant condone what we saw.

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:34 Comments (0)

Up the Irawaddy

In search of the Mekong River Dolphin of Northern Cambodia

sunny 30 °C

After 25 years of hopefully looking around on every boat ride I have ever been on in hope an unexpected dolphin might swim by (and 25 years of being disappointed that this has never happened to me wherever in the world I had been) I had begun to think that dolphins were either mythical or had some sort of aversion to me. For years I have looked enviously at people's holiday photos where dolphins have swum alongside their boat or jumped up in front of them unexpectedly. I have to admit that of you guys (you all know who you are) I have been green with envy.

Therefore when Andy suggested we change our current plan, to go straight to Vietnam, and instead head through Cambodia up the Mekong River in search of the rare Irawaddy River Dolphin. I was enthusiastic, but also wary that my curse of being a dolphin vaccination might also rub off on him. When he informed me that there are only 170 of these rare dolphins left in the world and are rare to see at all, I lost all hope. However, with one enthusiastic fiancé suffering from dolphin mania, I shelved my scepticism and we embarked on a 6 hour bus ride to North Eastern Cambodia, to the town of Kratie. After all, it was the only corner of Cambodia we had not visited.

Kratie Landscape
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From arriving it became clear that the town was not a massive tourist destination, and the few people that did arrive there were solely in search of the illusive dolphin. This was clear from the fact that the few restaurants and hotels around were either called “Dolphin” or “Mekong River” or a combination of the two. You would be impressed how many combinations they came up with. The buildings that were not these tended to be shops selling wooden statues of dolphins kissing, or statues of baskets of fruit (I have no real explanation for this anomaly but thought it best to be accurate). As soon as we got off the bus we were greeted by a friendly guest house owner (predictable guest house name; 'Silver Dolphin') who kept asking us whether we wanted to go see the dolphins right now.

I started daring myself to hope that this was the time that dolphins might be prepared to forgive me for however I had wronged them in the past. Instead of heading out in a rush we waited until the next day and spent the evening exploring the one street that is Kratie. It didn't take very long so we instead decided that beer on the balcony of our river view hotel room might be the best way to curb our excitement.

Setting out on 'Dolphin Day' (the alternative D-Day as it shall now be forever called) we were again quoted a ridiculous price for a tuk tuk and a ridiculously cheap one for a scooter so took off again on our own wheels along the Mekong riverside road to the 'dolphin site'. The drive took us through a whole set of stilted Cambodian wooden villages standing precariously on their four legs along the scenic river that was filled with tiny islands and the odd fisherman checking his nets; on equally as precariously balanced stilts. The breeze from the ride was appreciated as the afternoon sun in this part of the Mekong basin is boiling to say the least. The villages appeared to be entirely inhabited by children and animals as all the parents were working in the fields and rice paddies of the area. Kids were chasing and waving as we rode through laughing along with us as we pulled away. We had to stop for numerous chickens crossing the road in front of us *pause for chicken crossing the road jokes... enter your own here*.

We knew we had arrived at the dolphin site not from the hordes of tourists, as there were none, but from the life size statue of the Irawaddy dolphin that stood at the typically Cambodian entrance gate. This consisted of a sleepy but smiley Cambodian bloke behind a wooden desk next to an old woman with a cool box full of coca-cola and beer and a grill full of sardines on skewers. Still sceptical we paid our entrance fee, and were waved in the general direction of an equally sleepy and smiley looking bloke who had a boat that he pulled up almost to the shore for you to jump on. This is another typical Cambodian trait. It would be just as easy to pull the boats up entirely or build a slightly longer jetty, but they like the laugh of watching you jump awkwardly onto the boat, or more regularly in my case, fall head first into or out of the boat without any grace at all to the amusement of the crowd of boatmen and children.

We drifted into a beautiful pool area in the middle of the river while the boat man indicated for us to be quiet. We were unsure as to whether this was not to disturb the dolphins or whether he just wanted to sit in peace as he steered the boat with one foot and chain smoked silently. Not three minutes since we had left the shore, Andy suddenly jumped to his feet and whispered/yelped 'Dolphin! Dolphin!'. Suddenly we did not know where to look as the peaceful river dolphins broke the silent and calm surface of the river to breath all around the boat, about 10 foot away at every side. About 12 dolphins in total sauntered around the boat for the next hour coming as close as 5 foot away at times seemingly not bothered by our presence.

Dolphin and Boat
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More Dolphins
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Now, the bottle-nose dolphin is famed for it's friendly disposition and its hilarious nose. The Irawaddy dolphin is not as famous because it is not as plentiful and not quite as pleasing to the eye. In fact they have no nose at all and are pretty downright ugly. Ask Andy for his description of what they resemble. I won't be as crude to include it here but apparently it involves an area of the body that I don't myself have. However, I'll quote Kirsty Allsop here, it is all about 'Location, Location, Location' and when picking this area for their home of choice, the Irawaddy dolphin's have struck residential gold. The dipping hills behind the river landscape, the hot sun beaming and reflecting on the water and the tiny islands drifting along. Add to this the friendly neighbours in the Cambodians, who are desperate not to disturb the dolphins as they believe them to be reincarnations of people who have died, and you have a peaceful and lovely living environment. If you ever are in the area and you think that the 6 hour journey might not be worth it...you are wrong, it is!

Dolphins once again
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Thoroughly chuffed we jumped off the boat (without falling this time!) and headed back for the sunset. As you leave you are informed that the money you paid for the boat, 'Thank visitor please, all money you pay goes straight to the dolphins please'. I'm going to say that if these dolphins carry on being so entertaining then they better get a bank account to store all their dollars, as with the opening of more border crossings in Northern Cambodia and the building of more River Dolphin hotels in process, Kratie might be getting more tourist traffic in the future.

After discussion we decided that we felt satisfied with our Cambodia adventure and were ready to follow the river further North and get ourselves into a new country. Planning a stop over in Stung Treng, we got off the bus to find ourselves immediately boarding another one bound for Laos without the stop. As we found, all the best decisions to move on to pastures new are made spontaneously...

Posted by Annie Thornton 30.01.2012 05:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia dolphins mekong kratie irawaddy_dolphin Comments (0)

Cultural Capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh

sunny 28 °C

After celebrating our last night with the group before we went our separate ways we found that the party was premature and through a strange twist in the fate of all our travel plans, we were all heading to Phnom Penh for stop overs before departing in three directions across Cambodia.
Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, is a low rise but charming place although it's hectic development cannot be described as beautiful. It is in Phnom Penh where the reality of the atrocities of what the Cambodian people have had to live through is brought home to you. As such, we spent some real time in the city visiting the historical sites and learning as much as we could about the background to Cambodia. As a result this blog entry is understandably lacking many of the jokes that we previously fit in. There is also no pictures from this section of the holiday as we decided it was more respectful to learn rather than photograph. Heed the warning... you might want to stop reading now!

When you visit this city and meet the cheery smiling people it is very difficult to believe that so recently the life of the cities inhabitants was so brutally and violently disrupted. On April 17 1975 Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and took the city as a start of the Red 'Revolution' that over the next four years led a cruel regieme to 'cleanse' the population of modern elements by murdering the educated, the young, old and disabled who were unable to work on their communal farms and anyone else that upset the leaders. Through the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, a quarter of the population of Cambodia died (+3million) in horrendous circumstances, lost their homes, had their families split up and suffered torture and violent re-education. We had some knowledge of what had happened during this period from films and books but when in Phnom Penh and visiting sites such as S-21, the prison where suspected dissidents were held and tortured, and the Killing Fields, where Cambodians were murdered and put in mass graves, the whole period was suddently very real and clear.

The sites are still preserved to educate on the atrocities and they promote the belief that by allowing and encouraging people to visit and understand what happened in Cambodia, it would work to stop similar terrible events happening again in the world. It also works to educate young Cambodians about their own history so that they can fully understand and appreciate the suffering of their own relatives. This is particularly important in a country where 31% of the population are under 14 and only 3% of the population are over 65. The impact left from visiting these sites showed us that the Cambodian's are successful in promoting these sites and educating people about their history. I would, strangely, reccommend a visit as it was both horrible and fascinating. However, I would also recommend a very strong drink afterwards as it is the most depressing day I have had for a long time.

After stocking up on a new Casio watch each and meandering down the river we decided to head North through Cambodia to cheer ourselves up with one of Cambodia's beautiful and altogether more cheerful attractions, the rare Irawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River.

Posted by Annie Thornton 26.01.2012 23:09 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh killing_fields s_21 Comments (0)

Rabbit Island

Island Adventures

sunny 32 °C

Rabbit Island, off the coast of Kep, had become something of a fantasy land to us over the week before we set out. Over tipsy evenings of numerous bottles of non-Cambodian wine we had discussed the mythical facets of the island until it became a combination of an ideal and deserted wonderland of palm groves and beer trees, a centre hold of the Mormon international religion where rabbits were used both as the primary food group and as the internal currency and the location of the little known, but equally as real, alternative ‘Full Moon Party’ that could trump that of Koh Pahngan two hundred times over and was ridiculously elite and secret.

Arriving by a boat filled with five of us, one driver, two crates of Beer Laos, wine, whiskey, pringles, water and mosquito coils (the result of the boys going shopping without supervision) to sustain us for three days… we found that the island was tiny, beautiful, quiet with only a smattering of beach huts among the palm trees along the golden beach. There were for the moment no Mormons or rabbits in sight but we were assured that the moon was full and we were satisfied with the somewhat more convenient compromise from what we had imagined. Luckily our beach huts were accompanied by a little restaurant that meant that we did not have to ration the three packets of pringles and could instead eat a packet to convert the tube into a speaker booster for the full moon party later that night.

The beach huts were simple structures up ladders on stilts. They were not un-similar to the wendy house that Sophie has in the garden at Ian and Sue’s; apart from with the height of course. We had three bungalows reserved for the five of us. Andrew went to choose. There was the choice of being under a tree or having a proper Western throne toilet. Andrew chose the treeless option which I initially condemned him for as we had the Cambodian squat. I ate my words however when I discovered that out of trees come bright green snakes and tarantulas looking for a quiet space to chill out. We survived three days beasty free (excluding a hilarious frog who thought that the water bucket next to the squat toilet was a peaceful place to relax… how wrong he was). Unfortunately for the other guys, they were not as lucky and became subject to the zoo that took up in their bungalows. Over the next two days, trips to the toilet in the bungalows became accompanied with shrieks and screams as three foot long snakes slithered past when they were mid flow. Trips to bed were preceded by a full beasty inspection expedition. These investigations were not helped by the lack of electricity and involved spinning round in the middle of the bed with a head torch.

Rabbit Island is not a place with really anything constructive to do and you are therefore required to make your own fun. Andy was made up now that he had a new work group to construct the sand fort he had been dreaming of for many a year. All his past attempts seemed like scale models of the original by the time the ‘sustainable development’ was completed and a beer Laos flag topped its front. There was a tense moment when the local kids found that the fort was an entertaining new play area and messed with Andy’s turrets. Luckily Will managed to calm the situation by convincing them to build their own miniature settlement just outside the fort walls (which resembled a refugee camp from the encroaching domination of the Beer Laos forces… perhaps not!) Apart from providing three hours of entertainment for the chaps which allowed me and Lucy to relax on the beach, the fort also provided a perfect arena for the bonfire and full moon party once the sun set over the calm waters of the gulf of Thailand.

I will not bore you with our drinking games and antics over the course of the evening apart from saying it was loads of fun and punctuated with night time swims in the sea before returning to the bonfire to warm up and dry. Also I don’t think I can fully explain the hilarity of watching Andre repeatedly punch the sand in an angry fashion whilst we all sat around watching him in confusion steadily. It was a strange venue to play charades and it took us 45 minutes of watching Andre do this before we finally established he was attempting to portray ‘Die Hard’. He did not find the scars the next day on his hands as funny as we found it at the time.

After a two hour trek around the island the next day we found ourselves back on the beach for further relaxation before another night of beach party. Again the beach party consisted just of us five, but tonight we were joined by a a very strange Slovenian bloke who returned when we had headed to bed to do naked yoga on the beach in front of Andre's hut under the moonlight!

Excluding the naked European, Rabbit Island was a brilliant tropical holiday within a holiday. Like all good holidays, it was one that we needed to detox after for a week to recover! Heading back to the mainland we started planning to get back on the road to the capital of Cambodia.

Posted by Annie Thornton 24.01.2012 01:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia island kep rabbit_island kampot_province Comments (0)

Ghost Towns, Beer Laos and... Crabs.

Kampot to Kep

sunny 30 °C

Where Shianouksville has embraced every facet of commercialism and draws in hordes of tourists, the relaxed and relatively little visited Kampot province is only two hours away in time but a world away in development.

Reading of Kampot that it was an elegant French colonial settlement we were sold on stopping at Kampot for a few days before heading further to the beach in Kep. Hearing of Kampot that they had a particular tasty form of pepper that is enjoyed around the world, Andy was keen to get there in hope that there might be steak to go with the peppercorn sauce. Teaming up with Lucy and Will we quickly also adopted Swedish Andre on arrival and settled in the hostel garden next to the Beer Laos fridge with ipods and speakers and playing cards. In all honesty it is here that we could be found for quite a bit of our time in Kampot. When in Rome do as the Romans… when in a French colonial settlement… drink wine, play music, eat brie and chat rubbish in fake French accents.

After mainstream Shianouksville, Kampot brought a welcome return to the bizarre tourist attractions that Cambodia has to offer. This time, it was in the form of the Bokor Mountain and its deserted French hill station. A whole town, left to fall into disrepair, Bokor was abandoned twice, once when the French left Cambodia in the early 20th century and then again under the Khmer Rouge terror. What has been left is a smattering of what appear as derelict buildings up on the misty cloud covered mountains. Local families who live in the area have taken residence in some of the properties and it was quite strange to see a whole Buddhist family living in the crumbling walls of a 19th century French church on the top of a Cambodian mountain. They made it quite clear you could come in and have a look round though should you feel the need.

Up the mountain we go!
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We have quickly come to learn that in Cambodia, everything is powered by motorbike or scooter. Whole school classes of children are transported on a trailer with wooden slats for seats pulled by a single motorbike. Whole shops and street stalls can be attached to a scooter to transport them around the town (or away from the police when they show up to check trading licenses). In fact I have found that a whole family of Cambodians (average 6 people) can fit on one scooter, and a whole Buddhist monastery or Wat (average 8 monks) can be comfortably split between two motorbikes. As such, with Tuk Tuk drivers refusing to take on Bokor, Taxis non-existent and bus drivers laughing at us, we found we had to either trust someone else to drive us up the deserted roads without safety precautions or don our own bikes and protective headgear. Will and Andre were both accomplished bikers, had bikes at home and rode every day. They rented “The Beast” and “Bubbles”… proper motorbikes with gears and big wheels and you could rev them and things (apologies at this point for my lack of motorbike and technological knowledge. This is the only way I can describe them). Andy, being safety conscious, stayed away from the monsters that could cause damage to us or others and instead chose us “Norma”, the bright pink scooter who chugged up the mountain like a loyal old lady, drinking all our petrol but maintaining a healthy 40 km an hour as her top speed. She got us to the destination without fear or threat. Winner!

A new road that has just been blitzed into the hillside has brought two things. Firstly the ability to take the amazing scenery in on the drive that would otherwise have been near impossible on the old road on anything but a tractor. Secondly, it has opened up the mountain to future development and you can see the start of an enormous casino resort complex on the site of the old hill station taking form. As you drive up you feel the temperature drop all the way from boiling to a little bit chilly (this is Cambodia after all) and it is this temperature that makes the mountain so appealing.

Zooming back down the mountain and back into the heat of the late afternoon we took in the sunset over the river in a riverside bar and marvelled at our day. Smugness emanated from the whole group as we headed back to our hostel with bottles of red wine, a selection of cheeses to set up again at our table.

Sunset over the Kampot River
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Drawn to Kampot by the Kampot pepper, we were a little disappointed to find out that Kampot itself is not so much a growing zone and instead you want to head to Kep for the full experience. Now a fully fledged team, the five of us departed to be back on the seafront inspired by the whispers we had heard of special pepper crab to eat on the seaside and a tropical island off the coast. We were not disappointed.
Kep is another undeveloped gem that we suspect from its potential may be subject to the Cambodian diggers and developers in the future. Andy did end up with a slight cut on his foot from swimming in the sea which he insists is not from the rocks under the water, but from a giant six foot tall ‘King Crab’ who saw him as an adversary and worthy opponent and therefore waged war. Apart from Andy we initially had no evidence to support this story until we saw the giant sculpture of King Crab himself standing six foot tall on the promenade. Perhaps Andrew does talk some truth…. Nah!

For now, Kep is a charming little seaside town with a busy Crab Market and a host of tiny seaside restaurants with terraces which overlook the fantastic sunset. Ordering the seafood platter we were chuffed to see the staff wading into the water to catch the fish fresh to cook up right in front of the restaurant; no fear of reheated food in Kep! Served with the infamous (and what we were starting to believe may be a fallacy) Kampot Pepper we oohed and ahhed at the flavours as we toasted to a brilliant choice of destination with a glass of cold Beer Laos. At this point, I am ashamed to say, the communal smugness descended again on the group as we laid plans for our next location, the tiny tropical Rabbit Island just off the coast…

Posted by Annie Thornton 14.01.2012 08:27 Archived in Cambodia Tagged kampot crabs kep rabbit_island kampot_pepper Comments (0)

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