Monthly Archives: November 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by bus from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and were immediately surprised by how many obvious differences there were between the neighbouring countries:

  • Buddhism is much more obvious in Cambodia with monks in saffron robes everywhere and the temples have beautiful ornate roofs
  • Our first introduction to the country’s cuisine was ladies selling deep fried insects from large trays on a ferry that our bus took (we didn’t try them…)
  • the language is written in a cursive script which to our untrained eyes looked completely indecipherable in contrast to Vietnam’s romanised script which looks as if you ought to be able to say it even if the pronunciation is very difficult
  • Transport around the city is by tuk-tuk, a motorbike towing a kind of covered trailer (lots of fun!)
  • Cambodia seems visibly poorer than Vietnam with people sifting through rubbish on the streets, and far fewer street lights


Phnom Penh is a small city and you can cover a lot of sights by walking, much to the disappointment of the many tuk-tuk drivers who accost you every few steps. We found two good routes, one in our Lonely Planet taking us from Wat Phnom in the north to the Independence Monument in the centre, and one published by Khmer Architecture Tours taking in a range of different building styles throughout the central area of the city.

20131125-152452.jpgLonely Planet walking tour (clockwise from top left): inside Wat Phnom, Independence monument, detail of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship monument, Phnom Penh’s railway station (currently unused but apparently there are plans to upgrade the tracks and restart rail services)

20131125-143454.jpgDifferent building styles in Phnom Penh (clockwise from top left): Old royal villa from 1900-1910, ‘Hiroshima House’ is an example of Japanese De-Constructivism in Wat Ounalom, the 1960s former US Operations Mission building, the old Peugeot car factory and sales office (1935-45) was a favourite of ours

20131125-125158.jpgThe impressive art-deco Central Market was built in 1937

National Museum

Cambodia’s National Museum is located in a beautiful traditionally styled building right in the centre of Phnom Penh. It houses a good selection of Khmer sculpture taken from temples around the country as well as some wood carvings, ceramics and archaeological artefacts. The galleries are arranged around a lovely courtyard garden.

20131123-172026.jpgJulie in the courtyard garden

20131125-141541.jpgExhibits inside the museum

Royal Palace

It’s not possible to visit the palace itself as Cambodia has a king and, naturally, he lives there. However, access to some of the surrounding buildings, as well as the magnificent Silver Pagoda which stands in the palace grounds, is allowed.

20131125-125137.jpgUs outside the huge Throne Hall in the grounds of the Royal Palace

The Silver Pagoda takes its name from the 5000 silver tiles (each weighing 1kg) which cover the floor of the central temple. These are mostly covered by carpet so that they don’t get worn out by crowds of shuffling tourists, but it is possible to catch a glimpse of them around the edges of the room. The pagoda also contains other precious relics including golden and diamond encrusted Buddha statues!

20131126-120230.jpgSilver Pagoda (clockwise from top left): Stupas in the pagoda’s grounds, sightseeing monks taking photos of each other with their phones, wrought iron gate, silver floor tiles, you have to take your shoes off to go inside

20131125-141555.jpgTreasures inside the Silver Pagoda

Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields

These two sights give an insight into Cambodia’s troubled history during the Khmer Rouge regime. We knew they wouldn’t be an easy visit but it was definitely something that we both wanted to learn more about. Tuol Sleng was our first stop. This former school building was used as a prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured people accused of opposition to the regime. Once they had confessed to whatever was required they were executed, without exception. Very little has been changed as regards the structure of the building and it’s possible to see the individual cells crudely constructed of bricks in the former classrooms.

20131125-152526.jpgBarbed wire was stretched across the open balconies of the Tuol Sleng prison to stop inmates committing suicide

Our guide told us of the terrible practices that went on inside the prison as well as some of her own tragic personal story. She was about 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and her father, who was an army officer, as well as two of her siblings were killed before she, her mother and one remaining sister escaped to Vietnam. It was incredibly moving to hear the stories from someone who had survived the terror.

20131127-104318.jpgThe chilling prison regulations

Around 20,000 people were processed through Tuol Sleng during the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge were in power and only 7 are known to have escaped alive. On arrival prisoners were logged and photographed. Many of these photographs are on display inside and some Cambodians have found out what happened to their loved ones by seeing the photographs here.

20131125-152515.jpgInside Tuol Sleng (clockwise from top left): cells were built inside the old classrooms and walls knocked through, display of photographs, barbed wire on the balcony, busts of Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge’s leader

Choeung Ek is the site of the extermination camp (Killing Fields) associated with Tuol Sleng. When prisoners were to be executed they were loaded into trucks and brought 15km outside the city to this site where they were killed and buried in mass graves. They were often bludgeoned to death to save bullets. Nowadays the site is peaceful and green but you can see the undulations in the ground where the mass graves have been excavated and the huge memorial stupa where exhumed skulls and other large bones are kept. The audio-guide which is included in the ticket price is excellent including interviews with a former prison guard as well as normal Cambodians who lost family to Choeung Ek.

20131126-121106.jpgMemorial stupa, mass grave site, skulls inside the stupa

As we’d expected it was a hard day. We learnt things about the regime which were almost unbelievable in their horror, leaving us to reflect on how humans can behave in such ways and making us realise how lucky we are to have lived in a peaceful time and place.

Vietnam Round Up

With thanks to Jo for her input to this post

What photo takes you right back to Vietnam?

We had a great time moving south through Vietnam for 2 weeks with Jo and one of our favourite days was spent on scooters exploring Cat Ba Island.


Summarise Vietnam in three words.

  • Motorbikes – it seems that motorbikes and scooters keep everything moving in Vietnam. We saw them piled high with all manner of goods and carrying families of four as well as weaving around us every time we needed to cross the road.
  • Smiles – if you smile at people in Vietnam you usually get a huge grin back even if you’re say ‘no thanks’ to whatever they’re selling.
  • Bia Hoi – we tried to integrate ourselves fully with Vietnam’s culture which meant drinking a lot of fresh beer…

You really know you’re in Vietnam when…

…crossing the road. To cross the road in Vietnam you need to just step into the traffic and keep moving at a steady rate even when your instincts are screaming at you to either run or stop because there are three motorbikes heading towards you (they’ll weave around you, I promise). It’s a hard trick to master and caused many an adrenaline rush.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Vietnam?

A waterproof poncho. We had some lovely weather in Vietnam, but we got really wet plenty of times too and all of the locals had their ponchos ready for the downpours (they work well if you’re cycling or motorbiking too).

Rural Life in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

We took the Phuong Trang bus company’s coach to Can Tho and found the orange livery to be somewhat reminiscent of Easyjet (the mid trip comfort break is even at a bright orange service station!). However, the plentiful leg room, assigned seat numbers and free bottle of water indicated that its service level is a cut above the budget airline. The staff were also unfailingly helpful, from the ticket clerk who changed us onto the bus before the one we’d reserved as we arrived in plenty of time, to the security guard in the waiting room who helped us find a coffee shop in the bus station and told us when to board.

We arrived at Nguyen Shack in the early afternoon and almost immediately felt the frenetic stress of Ho Chi Minh City dissipate. The homestay/guesthouse is a 800m walk from the main road at the end of the path so there’s no traffic noise unless you count the gentle put-put of occasional passing outboard motors from the river. On arrival we were given a refreshing glass of lime juice and introduced to Theu, who originally opened the guesthouse, and her Canadian boyfriend Maxime, as well as their pets – Toto the cat, Pako and Charlie the dogs, and Bacon the diminutive Vietnamese pig – before being shown to our room, a bamboo hut on stilts with easy chairs on a balcony overlooking the river. Bliss. We unwound for a couple of hours, reading and watching small boats and large clumps of water hyacinth drift past.

20131107-175523.jpgThe Shack’s pets (clockwise from top left): Bacon enjoying a back scratch, Charlie, Pako keeping Jo company on the swing, Toto asleep in our room’s bin

20131111-174057.jpgView from our balcony

Sunset Boat Tour

At 4pm we made our way downstairs to join the sunset boat tour. As we were the only guests to have checked in so far that day we had the boat to ourselves. The boat meandered through the small river channels, past houses and under bridges. Children screamed out ‘hello’ and waved frantically to attract our attention, and adults would smile and raise a hand as they carried on with their tasks. We later learnt that English is being taught as soon as children start school so even five year olds know how to say hello and can count in English as well as Vietnamese. It was nice to be somewhere relatively untouristed where locals looked on us with curiosity rather than as moving cash machines. Drifting quietly along the waterways we didn’t feel ourselves to be intruding and it was interesting to see how integral the river is to everyday life here from fishing to laundry and bathing to transport and commerce.

20131107-175548.jpgPhom, the Shack’s friendly boat driver

20131109-084739.jpgWe think this couple were moving house, these girls were struggling to swim and wave at us at the same time!

20131107-175612.jpgAt around 5.30pm as we made our way back to the Shack the sky turned a pretty pastel pink – the promised sunset.

Markets Tour

The next morning our alarms woke us at the ungodly hour of 5am for the tour to the markets of Cai Rang. One of the main draws for tourists to the Mekong Delta are the floating markets. These are conducted entirely on the river, vendors in large boats hang out examples of what they are selling on long sticks and customers row or motor their own boats around to make their purchases while small boats selling coffee and snacks weave in and out. Most of the action takes place before the heat of the day, between 6-8am, hence the early wake up call. We were joined on this tour by a honeymooning couple from America who’d arrived late the night before.

20131111-175706.jpgLooking remarkably chipper for 5.30am, Jo, Julie, the American couple, Phom the driver and our guide

The floating market wasn’t quite what I expected. Less bustling I think. Possibly one of the reasons for this is that it’s primarily a wholesale market selling fruits and vegetables to the smaller land based vendors. Another reason, our guide explained, is that since the road network in the delta has improved it’s not really necessary to have floating markets anymore. It’s easier and cheaper for people to get about by motorbike and so the floating markets are slowly dying. Nevertheless it was an interesting sight to see the barges piled high with pineapples and watermelons, and families slurping up noodles for breakfast on their decks.

20131111-175741.jpgLong advertising poles with vegetables for sale tied on

20131111-210141.jpgAll of the boats have eyes. I’m not sure why.

20131111-210740.jpgLots of produce for sale.

20131111-210210.jpgThis lady was shopping with a huge grin on her face.

Nguyen Shack’s market tour also includes a visit to Cai Rang’s land market which, for me at least, was a much more interesting experience providing a real view into local life. It’s not just fruit and veg here but fish, meat, rice, flowers, pretty much anything a Vietnamese family might need. Not many (maybe not any) other tours visit this market so we got stared at a little bit, but that meant that people were pretty tolerant of, or maybe just bemused by, us getting in the way and taking photos of everything. Like the markets we visited in China, live fish were common. The vendors here seemed to prefer to dispatch them with a pair of scissors which seemed pretty brutal to us. Not quite as brutal as the tray of skinned frogs we saw though, after a few seconds we realised they were still alive (I’ll spare you the photos)…

20131111-212620.jpgPomelos (a kind of large grapefruit), crabs, sweet treats, courgette flowers, different types of rice, fish (I’m pretty sure these ones are dead)

20131111-212902.jpgTransaction in the fish market

Village Life Bicycling Tour

After breakfast back at the Shack we had planned to have a lazy morning and maybe a snooze but Maxime talked us into joining him and the American couple for a bicycling tour to see what local life is really about. He told us that this was his favourite of the three tours and that we wouldn’t regret it. He was right! We visited local tradesmen, factories and temples seeing a wide range of things that, as a tourist, you just don’t usually have access to. First stop was at the blacksmith working in a bamboo shack the way that blacksmiths have worked for years, the only concession to the modern age being automatic bellows to get the fire up to full heat. Next the small school, although holidays meant that there were no children there. Maxime explained that although school is compulsory it is not free and can often take up a sizeable portion of parents’ income especially if they have three or more kids.

20131111-223138.jpgBlacksmith at work, Andrew on the cycle path, distillation equipment in the rice wine factory

The rice wine factory has been owned by the same family for generations. The ‘wine’ is actually more of a spirit undergoing fermentation and then distillation and coming out at around 50% abv. Not for the faint hearted but very smooth to drink (more so than good vodka). Next was the local pagoda, a Buddhist temple with a small community of nuns who also take in orphans. The rice factory was fascinating. Rice is delivered by barge into a large silo from where it is fed into the huge machine which removes the rice husks turning it from brown to white rice, sorts out any broken pieces and bags it ready for shipment. The rice is destined for export as well as local consumption – in 2012 Vietnam was the world’s second highest exporter of rice after India.

20131111-213506.jpgCeiling of the rice factory. This is why you should always wash your rice before cooking it…

When we visited the traditional medicine doctor’s shop, Maxime related how he had used the doctor’s services once in the past year. To make his diagnosis, the doctor asked him a couple of basic questions, took his pulse and looked at his tongue before telling him the problem which was the major reason for his visit as well as about other niggles that he had. The prescribed herbs were then tailored to treat everything. Payment is on the basis of what you can afford, so the doctor’s services are accessible to even the poorest in the community unlike the Western medical services.

20131111-223523.jpgHerbs in the traditional medicine doctor’s shop

We got to have our rest in the afternoon, snoozing in hammocks in the Shack’s restaurant. In the evening Maxime and Theu invited some of their neighbours for food, rice wine and socialising. The rounds of downing shots of rice wine brought back fond memories of drinking vodka with Russian friends :).

20131111-214514.jpgA feast to end a fantastic stay.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue is Vietnam’s old Imperial Citadel. The fortified centre is similar in layout to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but as most of its population lives within the walls, it’s closer in function to Datong.

We had a bit less than 2 rainy days to explore the city and its surrounds. Besides being the old capital of Vietnam for about 80 years, it’s also famous as a site of intense fighting during the Vietnam/American War. As a result, the city was finally levelled by the USA and South Vietnamese in order to “save” it.

Imperial Citadel


Thai Hoa Palace, Hue Imperial Citadel

Like a Russian doll, Hue’s Citadel is actually three Citadels nestled inside one another, with a 30m wide moat around its outermost perimeter. Julie, Jo and I loved the intricately decorated gateways into to the self-contained complexes and residences, which we also found to be handy shelters from the frequent bouts of rain.


Julie, Jo and I in front of one of the many beautiful gateways in Hue’s Imperial Citadel


Just how beautiful you ask? How about this..

The centre-most Citadel is also known as the Forbidden Purple City and is in the process of slowly being reconstructed.


Looking out across the wide rectangular lake that takes up the northern end of the Imperial Enclosure

Our timing was pretty much impeccable all day – we’d just sat down and ordered a round of Bánh Khoái at a street corner food stall when it lashed it down. Fortunately their makeshift plastic sheeting roof kept us dry!


Bánh Khoái – a Hue specialty. Comes with different fillings (prawn or sliced meat pate) in a crispy corn taco-like shell. Very nice if a little on the greasy side!

The Royal Tombs

We’d originally thought we’d hire bicycles to visit a couple of the Royal tombs, but given the inclement weather we decided we’d hire a taxi instead. That turned out to be a fantastic decision – not only did our rain-dodging good fortune hold out as it rained while we were taxiing between the tombs, but we got to see 3 tombs instead of the 2 closest ones we thought we could reach on the bikes.

Our taxi driver took us to the Tomb of Khai Dinh first, a modestly sized hillside tomb of 5 levels in grey stone and concrete..


The entrance stairway to the Tomb of Khai Dinh

.. that is, until we got into the tomb itself on the 5th level, where we found the interior covered with the most spectacular mosaics..


Gilt bronze statue of the man himself – Khai Dinh, the penultimate emperor of Vietnam. His remains are interred 18m below his likeness

The second was the Tomb of Minh Mang, which was my favourite because it was so serene – like walking through a park. The layout of the tomb includes two lakes which are reached after ascending up to and down from 3 pavilions.


Layout of the Minh Mang tomb. Entrance is from the East (bottom of the map)


View of the Minh Lau Pavilion (which means Pavilion of Light – #8 on the map) from inside the Honour Courtyard (#5). The 3 levels of the Minh Lau Pavilion represent the heavens, the earth, and Water

We weren’t able to climb the final steps up to Minh Mang’s Sepulchre (#18 on the map) because it’s only opened one day a year on the anniversary of his death. We’d had enough of steps by then anyway, so we walked back along the lakeshore.

The final stop was the popular Tomb of Tu Duc, which the Emperor used for R&R before he died. As such, it has a lot of extra buildings to house staff during his visits, which, according to our guide book were mostly women – he had 104 wives and countless concubines!

We found it wasn’t in as good a state of repair as the other tombs we’d visited, but it did have a boating lake complete with small island that the Emperor was find of spending time on. The Emperors tomb, along with those of another Emperor and Empress are very modest compared to Khai Dinh, as they’re simple stone sarcophagi surrounded by 6 foot high walls. Of the 3, Tu Duc is the only one that isn’t actually interred here.


View of Tu Duc’s Burial Tomb enclosure. Unlike Minh Mang’s Tomb, you have to walk around the crescent-shaped lake in front


Tu Duc’s Tomb. Empty.

After a day with Emperors, we decided to eat like one at the splendid Le Jardins de la Carambole.


Vietnamese beef steak with Cafe de Paris sauce. Delicious!

When things don’t go according to plan

After Cat Ba Island we travelled to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The national park is an emerging area for tourism in Vietnam with the world’s two largest caves both having been discovered there in the past 10 years. We were all looking forward to our planned activities which went something like this:

Day 1 – arrive by overnight sleeper train from Hanoi at 07.49, hire bikes and explore the area around our guesthouse, Phong Nha Farmstay
Day 2 – take a guided tour 7km into Paradise Cave, the second largest cave in the world
Day 3 – transit to Hue through the de-militarised zone (DMZ)

Day 1

We caught our sleeper train with no problems and settled down for a good night’s sleep in our 6 berth compartment. Two of our cabin mates got off in the early hours leaving just the three of us and a Vietnamese lady. We knew that the train was not scheduled to stop for long in Dong Hoi so we got up at 7am, dressed, donned our rucksacks, refused the offer of some rice from the friendly lady and waved her goodbye to wait by the carriage door. After several minutes of standing in the corridor it was clear that we weren’t imminently arriving at the station and so we went back to sit in the compartment.

After another hour, no sign of the station and having had no breakfast we decided to investigate the offerings of the buffet car. The waiter gave us a menu but seemed keen for us to try the ‘chicken rice’ so we ordered three trays of rice with a fried drumstick and some sliced cucumber. It was pretty tasty considering it was cooked on the train and only cost 40,000 VND each (£1.20) or maybe that was just extreme hunger! The train stopped often, once for almost an hour, to let trains going north pass. We tried to work out where we were so that we could estimate our arrival time but we were never quite sure and anyway with all of the stops our speed wasn’t really consistent. Mainly we settled into reading, going through photos from the last couple of days and playing Angry Birds!

20131101-145612.jpgJo reading on the train

Eventually we picked up a little speed and pulled into Dong Hoi station. 8 hours late on what should have been a 8.75 hour journey… Fortunately our taxi transfer from the farmstay was waiting for us and we later found out that the train from the day before had arrived just a few hours ahead of ours – a mammoth 37 hours to travel the 522km from Hanoi.

20131101-145636.jpgDong Hoi station at last!

When we arrived at the farmstay there was more bad news. Due to the two typhoons and subsequent flooding which had torn through the area over the previous two weeks (also the reason for the train’s delay) there was no mains electricity. They did have a generator for lights and charging cameras, laptops and phones but it wasn’t powerful enough for air conditioning or hot water. A cold shower’s never much fun but Vietnam is warm enough that it wasn’t so bad. Much more disappointingly though, access roads into the National Park had been closed and Paradise Cave wouldn’t be open for at least another 3 days.

Oh well, we decided to drown our sorrows in a nice bottle of wine (or two) paid for with a small portion of the budget that we’d set aside for the cave tour, eat a thoroughly delicious home cooked meal, and hope that it would have stopped raining by the next morning so that at least we might be able to do a bike ride.

Day 2

We awoke to find that the flood waters, which at their height before our arrival had been lapping the top step of the house, had fallen quite far in the night. Our hopes were buoyed but the weather had other plans and during breakfast it started to rain again. Heavily. We settled in to some more reading, blogging and photo editing, and Andrew amused himself by turning the 3G dongle in the guesthouse’s laptop into a wifi hotspot so that we could check our emails.

20131101-152042.jpgLucky, one of the guesthouse dogs, a morning of heavy rain, Jo and Andrew reading on the terrace

By lunchtime cabin fever had begun to set in. The rain had eased a little so we decided to borrow bikes and head to the local noodle shop for lunch. After riding past it at first (when he said on the left after the turning onto the main road we didn’t expect it to be on the corner of the junction!) and meeting a number of locals who varied between shy smiles, shouting hello and trying to have us hold a baby, we turned around, looked more closely and were pleased to find the small restaurant empty but open. We ordered three bowls of beef noodle soup and crossed our fingers that the rain would stop so that we could explore some more local life in the afternoon.

20131101-154733.jpgCycling into the village, the noodles were worth it

After eating we convinced ourselves that the rain was getting lighter and we could head out a bit further on the bikes. Mike, the guesthouse manager, explained how to get to Phong Nha town mentioning that the first part would be very muddy and that “the bridge might be flooded but you should be able to wade through”. It sounded like an adventure!

20131101-160656.jpgFlooded fields outside the farmstay, we’re told that there are rice paddies under there somewhere…

It soon became clear that the rain definitely wasn’t going to stop. We greeted the slightly bewildered looks of locals with smiles and more than once we heard peals of laughter following us down the road from people sitting on their dry porches. I suspect that there are several Phong Nha residents who now think that foreigners are completely crazy and enjoy cycling in a downpour without the usual Vietnamese accessory of a waterproof poncho. By the time we reached ‘the bridge’ we were drenched and, faced with a raging torrent, we reluctantly turned around.

20131101-160802.jpgAndrew at ‘the bridge’

Back at the farmstay, Ben, the Aussie half of the Australian-Vietnamese couple who own the place, took pity on us and offered to drive us into town. During the short trip we saw some of the limestone karsts at the edge of the national park, met the man who discovered the world’s largest cave, and had a beer at the hostel which Ben also owns. After another delicious dinner we settled down to a Monopoly tournament with Ben, his wife Bich, his visiting friend Nathan, and Dean who works on reception. As with all games of Monopoly it dragged on for hours with plenty of friendly rivalry. Unlike most games of Monopoly I found myself in the winning position!

20131101-162001.jpgMonopoly at the Phong Nha Farmstay

Day 3

At last, something that was in our original plan! The transfer to Hue began at the slightly uncivilised hour of 7am and, after a later night than expected, we were all a little groggy but there was time to rest during the two hours that it took until our first stop at the Vinh Moc tunnels. The village of Vinh Moc was an important point in the supply line of North Vietnam during the American (Vietnam) War. Because of this the Americans bombed the area heavily to force the villagers to leave. Instead they built almost 2km of tunnels and moved the whole village underground.

20131104-091016.jpgPlan of the tunnels

Our guided visit took us through the upper levels of the tunnels (the lowest levels can only be visited in the dry season). As we crept through, not quite able to stand up, we saw the tiny niches where whole families would live, the meeting room and medical stations, including a reconstruction of the maternity area. The villagers were underground for so long, from 1966 to early 1972, that 17 babies were born inside the tunnels! Despite the Americans dropping an average of around 7 tonnes of bombs per person on the area they didn’t manage to destroy the tunnels and no villagers lost their lives. Unfortunately, our guide seemed somewhat disinterested and keen to get the visit over as quickly as possible, but despite that it was a fascinating place to see.

20131104-093559.jpgJulie just inside the tunnels, Jo at a tunnel entrance, the cramped area where families had to live

20131104-093625.jpgSome of the tunnel entrances are right next to the sea

Our second and final stop in the DMZ was at the Ben Hai River Museum. This was the border between the two halves of the country during the war and items on display include giant loudspeakers used to shout propaganda messages across the river and a huge flag tower. There was also an exhibit showing the injuries which are still happening from unexploded bombs and land mines.

20131104-095009.jpgAndrew and Julie checking for sounds from the huge loudspeaker [photo credit: Jo Harris]

20131104-095021.jpgThe Flag Tower

We arrived in Hue a couple of hours later. It wasn’t quite the stay that we’d hoped for, but it was nice to have some downtime and it whetted our appetite to visit the National Park again in a slightly less wet season.