Saturday, 31 July 2010

Angkor's petit tour

Friday 30 July: So far this trip I've tried to avoid it, but finally I find myself travelling around Angkor's 11-mile circuit on a child's toy - yes a bicycle (61st mode of transport). The country lanes are pancake-flat and a cycle really is the best, most enjoyable, way to see the sites and you have the additional freedom to stop when the mood takes you.
Early morning I peddle my way east to Banteay Samre built by Surya II (1112 to 1152), who also constructed Angkor Wat and the distant, now completely overgrown, Being Melea.
Then I head back west, towards the main complex, through pretty rice fields to Ta Prohm where jungle and temple meet. Most of the foliage has been cut back leaving only the big rooted Spung and
Chambak trees, which are now all that bind the masonry together. This is the temple featured in Tomb Raiders the movie.
A couple of miles further west is the Hindu temple of Ta Keo, a stepped-pyramid structure with five lotus towers on top. It's of early classic design built by Jaya V (968 to 1001).
Back on my bike, the sun is shining, the temples and landscape are fantastic and there's a pleasant tune replaying in my head:

I've got a bike, you can ride if you like
it's got a basket, a bell that rings
and things to make it look good
I'd give it to you if I could
but I borrowed it

Some photos of the inner circuit temples.
This is a great day - and not had lunch yet - there is more see . . .

Angkor's grand tour

Tuesday 27 July: Today a remork-moto is chauffeuring me around Angkor Archaeological Park's grand circuit to see the temples on this 16-mile outer loop. First stop is the ticket booth where $40 buys me a 3-day pass, complete with digital photo, to all the park's sites - all UNESCO listed.
Only the temples and lakes survive as other buildings, even the royal palaces, were made of wood - stone being reserved exclusively for the gods. Angkor's secession of god-kings constructed the temples, their names all end in . . . 'varman'. Here, for brevity I only use their forenames, hence Jayavarman VII becomes Jaya VII.
Built by Jaya VII in the 11th to 12th century, Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) Buddhist temple is a maze of narrow corridors plus a two storey pillared building in the grounds and a small fire temple nearby.
Next stop is the tiny Neak Pean (Intertwined Serpents) temple, one of the Buddhist king Jaya VII's little gems. A central lake with an island fed four surrounding pools via four sculptured spouts - a human head, elephant, horse and a lion - still a delight despite the lake now being dry. Tai Som is the third temple, another of Jaya VII's Buddhist creations
- overgrown in places but with restored carvings.
The fourth, an earlier 944-968 Hindu temple - East Mebon, is stepped-pyramid in form with elephants guarding the four corners. It's dominated by five lotus towers each pock-marked with holes originally used to key the decorative plaster. Pre Rup (Turning Body), probably a crematorium temple, is also magnificent. Built by Rajend II it's sagging lotus towers are held in place by a regiment of modern wooden supports.

After lunch it's on to Sras Sang lake, once reserved for the king and his wives, where local children swim and farmers wash their cattle.
Banteay Kdel is the final stop
. One of Jaya VII's 12th century Buddhist temples it has magnificent gateways adorned with the four smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, a recurrent theme in his later architecture.
Photos of Angkor's grand tour.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Siem Reap

Tuesday 27 July: The bustling dormitory hub and gateway to the extensive Khmer ruins of ancient Angkor. I'm staying at Red Lodge where an en-suite room with breakfast, free tea and coffee and a free bicycle (but not to keep!) is just $6 a night.
Siem Reap has two cosmopolitan bubbles at its heart
- 'Pub Street' and 'The Alley' - with a staggering range if international cuisine: from Italian pizza or pasta to Indian thali and from Japanese tempura to Australian kangaroo BBQ or local Khmer fare, to name but a few. Restaurants and bars are wall-to-wall and face-to-face, keeping prices keen - draft Angkor beer, served in a frozen glass, is just 50 cents (32p). My favourite dish is Samlar Ktiss, a traditional fruit soup made with fish or tender chicken simmered in coconut milk with pineapple, tomatoes, lime juice, lemongrass and subtle spices - served with steamed rice it's delicious.
Wednesday 28: The modern Buddhist temples in town, like many in Cambodia, reflect a more recent past - nameless human skulls are piled high, a memorial to those exterminated by the Khmer Rouge, a trauma from which the Cambodian people are still recovering.
Pictures of Siem Reap .

Friday, 23 July 2010


Thursday 22 July: Battambang (pronounced Bat dam bong) is a pleasant riverside town with inexpensive accommodation and I'm in a huge en-suite fan room in the Royal Hotel. Monsoon season is starting and the rain comes in short deluges between long sunny spells which suits me just fine.
Friday 23: A provincial town, Battambang has an abundance of little restaurants and more substantial French colonial buildings mostly falling apart, but the Governor's Residence and one of the banks are well kept. Wat Damrey Sar is not a particularly picturesque temple but has some unusual statues in the courtyard.
Saturday 24: I give up walking and take a moto to see the Bamboo Train a few miles from town. It's unique - a flat bamboo bogie with detachable wheels and small removable petrol engine - and that's it. They run along the narrow warped old French single-track line and when two meet head-on, the less heavily laden one is unloaded and dismantled so the other can pass. The same happens, though presumably a little quicker, if a big train approaches. What a great way to take advantage of an underused railway line.
Sunday 25: The water level is low so the five hour scenic boat ride along narrow weedy wetlands, through floating and stilt villages, to Tonle Sap lake and on to Siem Reap takes eight hours, but despite the discomfort it's a delight.
Photos, Battambang and the waterways to Siem Reap.

Cambodia: Phnom Penh

Monday 19 July: I was here in December 2008 and stayed in a Phnom Penh institution where the bedroom mini-bars are stacked with large bottles of spirits rather than small miniatures (they clearly know their market) - the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC). It's a little above my budget on this trip but I can't resist going back there.
It's a dark evening, so I take a remorke-moto - a comfortable hooded-carriage towed by a motorbike (60th mode of transport) but the FCC is full so I settle in the Royal Guesthouse just off the river frontage.

Tuesday 20: In 2008 the riverside walkway was a building site now it's a fine promenade with Wat Phnom on a little hill at the northern end.
Wednesday 21: At the southern end of the esplanade is the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda compound, and adjacent is the red terracotta National Museum. Both are splendid with exquisite Khmer roofs and well worth seeing a second time. I end my stay with a dinner of chicken amok (chicken baked with coconut milk, lemon grass and chilli) and a beer in the FCC.
Photos of Phnom Penh.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Vietnam summary

War torn but recovering. Sadly, not the friendliest country to travel in. The young guys in the tourist trade, moto (motorbike taxi) drivers and others try to make a quick big buck by constantly overcharging and short-changing you. Having to argue prices first (even on little things), and double-check bills and change all day long is essential but extremely irritating and tiring. Many, particularly young guys, also seem to enjoy making your life less comfortable. Not a country I would rush back to for those reasons.
Water: Drinking water in plastic bottles is commonplace - the five-litre containers are far better buy than the smaller bottles.
Drinks: Wine - Dalat produces the best of the local wines. Surprisingly the 16% red costs less than the 12% red, that is, until you taste it. Beer - 'Fresh' or draft beer - Bia Hoi ' is cold from the barrel and easily drinkable at 4,000 dong (17p) a glass. Tiger beer in cans can be ice cold and is good too, but a little more expensive. Tea - local green or Lipton Yellow 'dunking' bag black tea is widely available. Coffee - Vietnamese strong and slightly bitter bean coffee is served everywhere.
Toilets: Mostly, but not always, upright.
Dong (currently £1 = 29,000 dong), so it's easy to be a millionaire.
Language: Most youngsters and those in contact with tourists speak English.
TICs: Mostly act as travel agents but the one in Sapa was extremely helpful.
Accommodation: En-suite room only is the norm
, breakfast is extra.
Many varieties of noodle and rice dishes with more western fare at tourist hot spots.
Small corner stores mostly named something Mart.
Trains - comfortable and modern but usually need to be booked well in advance. Buses - operating companies have an 'open' ticket system to tourist destinations where you need to confirm travel the day before departure but they tend to treat passengers like live goods (say pigs or chicken) rather than people, some even refusing to make toilet stops.
Medical: Available in main centres at a cost.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Mekong Delta

Friday 16 July: The Mekong river rises in the Tibet Himalayas and finally branches into a delta, creeping slowly towards the sea, in southern Vietnam. It's raining all day long.
Saturday 17: Today I wake up in Can Tho
to clear morning skies and a lively river frontage with a large metal statue of uncle Ho overlooking ornamental gardens. The wide oozing branch of the Mekong is bustling with boats of all shapes and sizes from high-oared sampans to heavily-laden sand barges sitting low in the murky red water. There are kerbside fish-sellers, their wares lurking in glass-tanks, basins or plastic baskets: shellfish, eel, squid, green crab, red and black crab, lobster, prawns, numerous small crustaceans, fat-legged frogs - some skinned alive but still breathing-fast and trying to jump, tortoises and a huge variety of fish from pointed snake-heads to catfish and from tiny sprats less than an inch long to large tuna.
Sunday 18: It's a 4-hour bus ride to Chau Doc's bus station where I pick up on a cyclo, a little two-wheeled open-topped cart towed by a bicycle (59th mode of transport). Small and mellow, Chau Doc is the point of departure for boats to Cambodia. I choose the slow 'tour' boat option - it's a scenic 10-hour cruise along the river Bassac, a branch of the Mekong, across the border to Phnom Penh.

Friday, 16 July 2010


Tuesday 13 July: The central part of Ho Chi Min City is still known as Saigon and this former capital of South Vietnam is a buzzing place, throbbing with tourists and motorbikes. I take a walk around the city centre - the Hotel de Ville with it's ornate French facade (now the People's Committee Building), Notre Dame Cathedral and the Opera House are all legacies of French occupation. I end my day in a former French mansion, the cool and breezy Fine Art Museum.
In the evening I've just finished my noodle soup and spring-roll dinner at Madam Cuc's Hotel 64
when Liza and Eric arrive - it's good to see them again.
Wednesday 14: The 1960's style Presidential Palace is now the Reunification Palace and the former Museum of War Crimes is now the War Remnants Museum. On display here are chilling images and artifacts from the Indo-china (Vietnam) War. I feel increasingly uncomfortable among the exhibits and their captions - BLU-82 Seismic Bomb, Agent Orange, Phosphorus Bomb, Napalm, Cluster Bombs.
The photographs are both striking and disturbing. The more recent, in colour, are the most harrowing of all - children slowly deformed by chemical poisons or those whose limbs have been ripped apart in the short time it takes for an unexploded mine to detonate - the forgotten agony of a war's aftermath. The armed conflict ended in 1975.

Our farewell Phu noodle dinner is a sober affair.
Pictures of Saigon (some not for the faint of heart).

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Mui Ne Beach

Monday 12 July: Liza, Eric and I meet up again on the bus to Mui Ne - the beachside Hai Yen Guesthouse, with pool, is a good choice.
Tuesday 13: From the narrow beach strip we wade up a shallow river, the 'Fairy Spring', which is surprisingly pretty - red desert dunes drape over soft white sandstone bluffs which hang above a translucent reddish stream, alive with small darting fish. On the dunes Eric stumbles upon a vintage M16 cartridge case so we decide to stick close to the beaten track in fear of unexploded ordnance. Vietnamese, Laos and Cambodians, of all ages, are still disfigured or killed each year by exploding US munitions.
A few Mui Ne photos.
Overnight bus to Saigon.

Monday, 12 July 2010


Friday 9 July: En-route to Dalat we stop briefly at the red sandstone Po Klong Garai Cham Towers. Away from the sticky-heat of the coast Dalat is an old French hill-station centred on it's lake (sadly drained at present). The art-deco Summer Palace of Emperor Dinh Bao Dai is in the suburbs and the nearby Crazy House, built by local architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga, is still a work in progress.
Saturday 10: The real gem of Dalat is the little French-built railway station with it's rusting old rolling stock. Once linked to the mainline the cog-railway track was badly damaged by VC attacks, a short stretch remains open for tourist jaunts.
Photos of Dalat.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Hoi An and My Son

Monday 5 July: A delightful ancient riverside town with old Chinese meeting houses and house museums. By the agreement of both sides it was undamaged by war and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site awash with tourist bars, restaurants and hotels.
Tuesday 6: The real draw card is the local Cham temple remains at My Son. A Viet Cong base during the so called 'Vietnam' war the temple complex was bombed mercilessly before President Nixon instructed the US military to stop destroying Cham monuments but continue killing the Viet Cong.
From the entrance gate old US Army jeeps (58th mode of transport) ferry us to the temple sites. Judging by the size of the grass-filled bomb crater in front of the ruins I'm surprised anything is still standing - the guide tells us the bricks were cemented together, in situ, with sugar syrup before being fired to set the glue making the structures as hard as solid rock - ideal bomb shelters.

Pictures of Hoi An and My Son.

Monday, 5 July 2010

China Beach and Danang

Sunday 4 July: Ignoring a beach strip of large hotel developments I arrive at Hoe's Place, a small homely guesthouse, and meet up with Liza and Eric for a celebratory BBQ lunch - yes it's the 4th of July when the King granted America independence from Britain (not sure the American rebels see it quite like this). Following a lazy day on the beach we climb to the temples and pagodas of Marble Mountain passing some wonderful sculpture studios en-route - the laughing Buddhas are a real joy.
Monday 5: Liza and Eric head for Hoi An but I stay to see the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang. The rock carvings are good but the Bodhisattva Tara bronze is exquisite. I too get the bright yellow local bus to Hoi An.
China Beach and Danang photos.