Ayutthaya by 3rd class train

29 05 2010

We took the 3rd class wooden seater train to Ayutthaya from Bangkok for a bargain 15B each. It was a packed train, so we were happy to have snagged a seat but with so many people leaning over, putting luggage at our feet and standing in front of us there was still very little room to move. The locals made sure we knew when to get off, although it wasn’t too much off schedule. We caught a local ferry (4B) acorss the river and walked to Tony’s Place. We couldn’t find any veg restuarants from happycow so after wandering around for an hour we decided to see if Tony’s could cook us something. We were able to have Pad Thai and rice and vegetables for lunch. And for dinner we had fries, sweet and sour tofu veg and thick noodles.

In town was a supermarket where in the surrounding streets there were icecream shops, pizza, burgers and any number of unhealthy foods. We named it “fat street”. We were healthy and bought cereal and juice from the supermarket. The tamarind juice is fast becoming Benno’s favourite, but we definitely do not recommend the Bael juice that we also had.

The next day we hired bicycles and road around town. We went to the temple with the iconic buddha’s head surrounded by tree roots, but the rest of the temple was in ruins because “it leave in a ruin” as “the earthquake caused the crumble”. After coming from Angkor Wat the ruins weren’t that interesting for us so we road our bikes around and looked at the other temples from afar. We went in search of a vegetarian restaurant for lunch. We found the right street but couldn’t see any numbers. Benno randomly went into one stall and asked if they knew the place we were looking for…and it was the right shop! With no spoken or written English we both had rice and stir fried veg and tofu with a peppery broth, ice water and fresh mangosteens and rambutans for dessert. For the 2 of us it came to 50B (about $2).

That night we caught the overnight train to Chiang Mai. The sleepers were seats that converted into bunks. The rail was not as smooth as China so the top bunk swayed with the movement of the train and made it difficult to sleep without being thrown off the side. On the upside, the privacy was good, with curtains that covered the whole side and gave a little cubby to sleep in.

The buddha's head.

Do not travel: Bangkok

27 05 2010

After an exhausting 3 days of temple trekking we went to Bangkok from PP. We were a little hesitant since the Australian government had Bangkok listed as a ‘Do not travel’ destination due to the recent red shirt activity and arson on one of the largest shopping malls in Asia. We took a taxi from the airport where the driver blocked the meter with a pop-up DVD screen that played Robbie Williams live in concert, but fortunately this driver was not one that rips off tourists. It took about 50 mins and 400 baht to drive across town to our accommodation. Surprisingly, there were lots of tourists out on the streets and the guesthouse seemed relatively busy so not everybody was observing the government warnings.

We went out for a late dinner at the close-by May Kaidees, then walked through Khao San Road markets on the way back to our guesthouse.

We weren’t sure about travelling too far afield in case we were attacked by terrorists (not really!) so we decided to catch a river taxi to Wat Pho, a famous temple with a giant reclining buddha. Unfortunately, due to an inability to read the map we wandered around for 1 hour when it should have taken 2 mins to get to the river taxi. 14 Baht (50c) later we had caught the river taxi and followed the orange clad monks to the temple. There were lots of Indian/Sri Lankan tourists at the temple getting their photo taken with the buddha statue. The architecture was also distinctly different compared to elsewhere.

We had an expensive lunch at Ethos where vegan dishes were marked in red and vegetarian dishes marked in green. Benno spurged on an apple crumble with coconut custard for dessert.

In the afternoon we went to another Wat where there was a solid gold Buddha. We learnt that metered taxis are cheaper than fixed rate taxis.

That night we took a taxi to the other side of town where it took twice as long as we thought it would take, but eventually we had a Thai meal with Benno’s high school friend Nathan. We realised that curfew was coming up soon and we had to get back to our guesthouse. We caught a taxi and it took 10 mins to go 2 km. We thought everyone must be on the road going home. But then the traffic cleared, our driver went 90 km/hr and it took 20 mins to get back (compared to the 60 mins it took to get there) and we arrived half an hour before curfew.

Angkor Temples

25 05 2010

We arrived in Siem Reap around 12.30pm and walked to ‘Shadow of Angkor’, our guesthouse. We had lunch at the Singing Tree Cafe in The Alley. We had fresh spring rolls, Amok curry with brown rice and a lotus seed brown rice salad. The Singing Tree supports environmental charity groups with their profits.

In the afternoon we planned out our temple visiting itinerary and organised a tuk tuk driver through the guesthouse.

Dinner was at Chamkar, a vegetarian restaurant in The Passage.

Day 1 at Angkor we fortunately escaped most of the crowds. We left town at 7am in our tuk tuk and did the little circuit – South Gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon with the many faces, Baphuon covered in scaffolding, Terrace of the Elephants, Phmeanakas with steep stairs accessible from one side only and the Terrace of the Leper King. Out past the Victory Gate we visited Chau Say Thevoda andd Thommamon, then climbed up the scary steep steps to the top of Ta Keo. We ate lunch at a restaurant near Angkor Wat. On to our favourite temple, the overrun-with-nature Ta Prohm then Banteay Kdei before finishing with Angkor Wat. We waited for sunset but it was too cloudy so we went back to town for dinner at Little India-bargain thali for $3 a plate.

Day 2 we were up early and left at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.Still quite cloudy, it was overrated.Then we did the big circuit and visited Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som with more giant trees, East Mebon and Pre Rup. We came back to town and had lunch at the Singing Tree again. After sleeping for a few hours we went back to Phnom Bakheng and enjoyed the tourist trap that is sunset from the top of the temple. We met some Japanese girls there and arranged to meet them for dinner sometime. We had dinner at Indian Gate where the sign out the front said the best food in Siem Reap. It wasn’t, but that’s ok.

Day 3 we returned to Angkor Wat at 5am for another go at a sunrise. Yesterday was better, but there were less people this morning. From there we travelled about 90 minutes out to Banteay Srey, the citadel of the women with intricate carvings. On the way back we stopped at Banteay Samre. We had lunch at Peace Cafe, slept for a few hours and woke up in time to meet our driver at 3pm to go visit the Roluos Group of Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong. We had dinner at Maharaja with the two Japanese girls who got harassed for tuk tuks in Japanese worse than we did in English. Then we had some juices at the Island Bar in the middle of the night market.

After exhausting ourselves with 3 days of temple hopping, we had a sleep in and an early lunch at Chamkar followed by a rest day before our bus back to Phnom Penh tomorrow.

Day 2 and 3 Angkor Photos

25 05 2010

Welcome to Cambodia

20 05 2010

We took a bus from Saigon at around 6am and arrived in Phnom Penh around 12.30pm. The border crossing was relatively easy since the tour company collected all our passports and organised the exit and entry while we waited and walked from point to point.

We took a tuk tuk to our chosen guesthouse then walked out to a vegetarian restaurant for lunch. The servings were small and every dish on the menu was noodles with mushroom – I think we may have received the foreigner treatment of getting a worse dish than the locals, but for 8000 riel it wasn’t worth contesting.

We were already half way to the Silver Pagoda so we continued on to the opulent palace with golden roofs and strict entry requirements (no hats, scarves or short shorts).

Bargained a tuk tuk down to $1 and returned to the guest house where Benno rested his sunburned skin under the air con.

Dinner was at a Chinese vegetarian restaurant that we had to walk many blocks down to number 699A. We ate franch fries, cauliflower with green beans and tofu with basil and ginger for a total of “ten five thousand” (15,000 r, about $4).

Took a motor back to the guesthouse, as it was now much too dark to want to walk back along the streets.

Day 2 we walked up to Paradise Hotel and met some HK Lutherans and drove out to Kg Chhnang where a mission is. The village has around 600 families which includes around 2000 or more children. The families all farm the land around the village during the 6 month wet season. There is only one planting a year. They must grow enough to store for the 6 month dry season when they cannot farm because they have no water or irrigation. When they are not farming, they weave baskets which they take to the Thai border and sell to the Thai people as they get a better price than selling them to other Cambodians.

The mission centre in the village runs a feeding program for children at 11.30am, after school finishes, then they have English lessons in the afternoon. They hold 3 services on Sundays and have Sunday school.There is only electricity in the night time so they must use a generator if they want electricity for fans, lights or computers during the day.

Families live on 30x30m blocks of land that cost about $3000. An oxen to help in the fields costs $300, and the monthly salary of a doctor is $200.

We had Indian for dinner once we arrived back in the capital around 7pm. The hostel almost lost our key and it took them ages to find it. They are not very helpful.

The next day we took a tuk tuk to S-21, the school converted into a prison during the Pol Pot regime. We watched a lame video for 1 hour that explained very little and just read out love letters written between a particular man and his wife who were separated for many years and ended up being killed. We saw some of the HK Lutherans from yesterday, bats, cells, gallows, interrogation rooms, read lots of stories and were perplexed by the quotes in English under Cambodians who worked in the S-21 prison who mostly said they had no regrets about working there.

Lunch was across the road at the Boddhi Tree where we had Cambodian tofu and coconut curry and stir-fry veg with ginger.

In the hot afternoon we went to the Killing Fields where we saw large mass graves, bleached bones and were annoyed by gangs of begging children.

We had dinner at Friends, an expensive restaurant that trains former street children in hospitality. We ate spring rolls, tofu stirfry and crispy noodle salad.

The next morning we caught a 6.15am bus to Siem Reap.


17 05 2010

Well, the train was late and everyone was waiting on the platform in the dark for the train to come. On the upside, it meant we arrived in Saigon at 5am, not 4am. After finding a suitable room and bananas for 10,000/kg we caught up on sleep.

Lunch was across the road from the hotel at Zen vegetarian. Lara didn’t like it so much although it was full so obviously popular. The meal sizes seemed a little small and boring (no garnishes or salads) for the price, although we still both ate for under $7. We had garlic fries (surely 5 cloves of garlic over a small bowl of chips), wheat tofu in coconut sauce, green cabbage stirfry with tofu and mushroom, mango juice and tamarind juice.

Back to the hotel to rest from the heat and sunburn, out for dinner at Ngoc Tho, one street away. We had fresh coconut juice in the shell, guava juice, fresh spring rolls, sweet and sour tofu and cashew nuts and cauliflower.

The hotel, while cheap, had some construction work happening near by so the power and water was turned off intermittently. For the sake of Benno’s sunburn we decided to change hotels. However, before we even spent one night, at around 10pm Benno decided that his sun burn was bad and he needed a doctor. So we went to the hospital where he was checked out and given painkillers and a cream and dismissed around 11.30pm.

Next day, another day off. Moved hotels to one with stronger wifi and air con. Lunch at Sen Com Chay a couple of streets away. Had fried tofu with fragrant knotweed, coconut juice, fried spring rolls and vegie meat with sweet and sour.

Dinner was at Dinh Y, a family run place by some markets. The crockery was green plastic picnic wear and we had strawberry juice, sapote juice, fried eggplant fritters, vermicelli with fried spring rolls, and fried rice with veg. Then we went to the supermarket for breakfast foods and snacks. In between meals we watched lots of TV- the Biggest Loser, Gardening Australia, P.S. I love you, and a doco on leopards and baboons.

Cu Chi and Coconut Candy

17 05 2010

May 16

Took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels 90 minutes outside of Saigon with Sinh cafe, who had been recommended, but were perhaps a little too popular given that the bus had 45 people. The tourist scene seems to be changing- the bus was full of Asian tourists who took silly photos of themselves in front of everything, not western backpackers. This trend we noticed in Cambodia as well, where the tourists that were most plentiful and spending the most money  were the Asian travelers.

We past a giant jackfruit tree to a secret hidden tunnel entrance that was covered in leaf litter and very small. We saw booby trap tunnels, swinging door traps, fighting trenches, fake termite mounds with air holes, tunnels that stretched all the way to the river, weapon workshops , uniform and tyre sandal workshops.

Next to the rifle shooting range we watched rice paper being made by hand over a fire steamer.

We got to crawl through a tunnel that had thankfully been enlarged slightly and had lights installed- even so it was dark and cramped and hard to know where to go. Then we watched a DVD on the tunnels that was really bad quality, stopped several times and eventually they turned it off half way through and said it was over.

We returned to Saigon after a shopping stop at a handicapped handicrafts centre, had a 15min lunch break of bananas, take away spring rolls and mango shakes and got on another bus for a half-day Saigon tour.

We visited the War Remnants Museum, which was very interesting if not very sad at the destruction the American war (Vietnam war) caused to the people and land of Viet Nam. Some of the cruelty inflicted was truly barbaric, and brings to mind more recent American army acts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s amazing that even now there is no recognition or compensation of victims of the chemical warfare (Agent Orange, mostly).

After that we toured the opulent Independence Palace and explored the basement War Command Centre rooms with ancient radio equipment.

From there we went to the French-styled Post Office building and Notre Dame Cathedral which was packed with the Sunday mass goers.

Dinner was at Punjabi Indian, then we wandered the Ben Than night markets.

On our last day in Saigon we took a Mekong Delta tour. The Mekong is 4500km long and is the third longest river in Asia after the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. The Mekong is fed by melt waters in Tibet.

Our first stop was My Tho, where we got onto the boat. We were about 50km from the South China Sea. We went past fishing boats to a rice paper shop where we watched rice paper being made again. This one was different as they made coconut milk, rice and sugar paper then cooked it to make a sweet and crunchy snack.

From there we went to Ben Tre village, saw bee farms and items made from coconut. Then we took a horse carriage where the driver said he made 20000 dong a day since we were his only ride that day. We listened to awful traditional music and ate tropical fruits until it was time to take a row boat to the coconut candy workshop. Yum! It tasted so much better fresh.

Dinner was at Ngoc Tho where we ate crispy rice noodles and tacos with black beans and tofu.

Nha Trang

13 05 2010

We survived the sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang – the pop music was playing all night, there were several stops, the beds were semi-reclined and very narrow (3 beds across  in a normal sized bus), but we got into Nha Trang at 6am.  It was a little confusing as the bus stopped about 3 times in different places in Nha Trang before stopping near the beach where us tourists were allowed to get out – it was a little nervous watching all the locals get out and leave and wonder why we weren’t allowed to get off at our destination.

We ignored the hotel touts and made our way to Sakura Hotel – a little piece of Japan in Vietnam, but only the name.

After a little rest we went for a walk along the beach. Being mid morning most people were still in bed so it was quiet. The beach was lovely – little beach huts along the shore, white sands and blue waters… but the amount of rubbish made it gross. There were bits of food, corn cobs, rubbish bags, plastic bags, bottles, polystyrene and poo in the water and along the shore. Somebody isn’t looking after their tourist beach very well…

We went and booked a snorkeling tour for tomorrow and found a vegetarian (com chay) little diner next store. Again, for 10,000 dong we had a plate of rice with about 5 different options. After that we disappeared inside to escape the heat, venturing out again in the evening to go to the supermarket and to dinner at another vegetarian restaurant for a rice plate and pho. Unfortunately there was a fly in my pho soup so I didn’t feel so hungry after that. While we have been eating very cheaply, most of the family run vegetarian restaurants serve basically the same thing – choice of noodle soup or rice and veg/mock meats.

The next day we were picked up at 8.30am to go out snorkeling all day. The tour was more expensive than the $4 party boat/island hopping with 40 other people tours but we felt that the extra $10 for a vegetarian lunch and small group was well spent. We had 7 people on our boat and went to 3 different locations for snorkeling, about an hour at each site. We saw lots of colourful coral- yellow, blue, purple, pink- and fish everywhere- star fish, bright yellow fish, zebra striped fish, parrot fish chomping on the coral, long fish standing up straight and more. Lunch was good- 3 dishes we could eat plus heaps of fresh fruit (mango, guava, watermelon, pineapple and banana).  Our guide loved to jump off the top of the boat into the water and would say “why not?” “don’t be lazy” to push others into doing the same. The only bad thing about the all day trip was that it was deceptively cool in the water and we all got a bit sun burnt.

We tried something different for dinner – an Indian restaurant around the corner as we were feeling a little bit sick of the “same same but different” com chay. We had aloo gobi and chana masala with lemon juice (like nimbu pani). One bad thing about more international restaurants was that, apart from being more expensive, hawkers come into the shop trying to sell their cigarettes/books/souvenirs etc. You don’t get that eating at the local family run places.

As a result of the sun burn, Benno spent the next day in bed with repeated aloe vera applications, feeling sorry for his sun burn. Lara went out and found more aloe cream, take away vegetarian for lunch and organised our train tickets overnight while Benno stayed indoors.

We took a sleeper train from Nha Trang to Saigon, leaving about 9 or 10 pm and taking 7 hours to get to Saigon, arriving about 4am.

Hoi An

8 05 2010

Took a bus from Hue to Hoi An. It was air conditioned, but very poorly so it was still incredibly hot. We arrived around 12pm (left Hue around 8am) and didn’t want to stay at the hotel it dumped us at so we wandered around in the heat trying to find another place. Finally we found the hotel we were looking for – with a swimming pool and rooms for $15 a night. We had lunch (after watching You’ve Got Mail on TV) at a small veg place down the road. There was a tiny tiny ginger kitten at the shop that was so cute. We ate a bowl of noodles for about $1 each before returning to the hotel for a swim and rest in the air con.

We went out to dinner at a vegan restaurant that was wanting to become a Loving Hut store. We had our cheapest meal yet – noodle soup or rice with tofu and veg for about 60 cents a dish (10000 dong). They had homemade soymilk made by the mum that was so tasty we asked to buy a bottle to take with us. They poured it into an empty water bottle- hygiene and food handling safety mean something different here.

The next morning we went out early to the markets where we stocked up on water, pineapple, bananas, thongs and a Tintin t-shirt for Benno along with a conical hat for shade. 6 bananas or a whole pineapple cost 60 cents (10000 dong) which is pretty cheap. We booked an early morning (5am) tour to My Son for tomorrow and returned for a mid-morning swim at 10am.

We were very happy to have booked the early morning tour – even at 5am when the sun came up it was hot. We tried to sneak out of the hotel,  but woke up the workers sleeping on the floor in front of the door under mosquito nets. The van took about an hour to get to My Son, then we had lots of time to wander around the ruins of the Cham people. It was about 8am by this time, and getting pretty sweaty. I’m glad we didn’t go for the later tour that left Hoi An at 8am because there was little shelter around the ruined temples and it would have been mighty hot. We arrived back at the hotel around 9am, slept a bit more, checked out, collected some tailored clothes, had lunch, collected some other clothes, went swimming, posted the new clothes home, had dinner and waited for our sleeper bus to Nha Trang. The bus was meant to come pick us up between 5.30 and 6 pm but we were kept waiting until about 7pm – probably good because it meant less time on the bus. The Vietnamese pop music didn’t cease the entire journey.


7 05 2010

We arrived im Hue around 10am. We came out of the station and were surrounded by taxi drivers shouting their “hello taxi” at us. We walked out and thought we would pick up a less hassling taxi on the main road, but ended up walking the whole distance to our hotel (it wasn’t that far). We got a good deal on a room, $12 a night, then had a cold shower before heading out to lunch. 2 of the restaurants on Happy Cow didn’t exist, but we found one, Tinh Tam, that was open and in existance. Only problem was, their fans weren’t working and it was terribly hot. We had sweet and sour “beef” and lemongrass “chicken”  which was very tasty, but we had sweat pouring down our legs so we retired back to the hotel. Once the heat of the day was over around 4pm we ventured out again and visited the Citadel. The ruins and overgrown gardens of the Forbidden Purple City didn’t look tourist-safe but it was interesting enough. We stopped off at the supermarket and tried some coconut candy before having dinner at Bo De on Le Loi street (every city seems to have a Le Loi street). We had Pho, rice cracker, jack fruit stir fry for about 80000 dong ($5 total) and then went back to the hotel to avoid the insects and mugginess of the evening.

The next day we went on a Perfume River cruise. We were picked up by motorcycle and taken to the river. We had no idea what boat we were meant to get on, but settled for the dragon boat with foreigners already on board. We visited a fishing village, Thien Mu Pagoda, Minh Mang tomb, a Kung Fu show, Tu Dac Tomb and a Conical Hat and incense making shop. The guide told us the weather was forecast as 41 degrees so we didn’t go to every temple on the agenda but rested in the shade. We were sweating off all of our lunch on board the boat and really needed a cold shower when we returned to the hotel.

We had dinner at a popular local place called Lein Hoa. There were lots of locals and monks eating noodles and hotpot but we went for the interestingly named “twelve predestined affinity”. Dinner was a bargain at 60000 dong ($4) total.