To the Mekong and Beyond
Trip Start Apr 26, 2009
5Trip End Jul 25, 2009
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Two and a half weeks into our honeymoon travels and we have covered a huge area, experiencing so much along the way.
The trip started in good old T4 LHR - oh the memories. We didn't mind missing out on the glam T5 experience as some of our wonderful friends had sorted out a very smooth and luxurious journey from the minute we checked in - big thanks to Michael here especially!!
We began our travels in Bangkok on 27 April at the gorgeous Conrad Hotel - stunning decor, cool gadgets and so clean and nice, stark contrast to what was awaiting us in the coming days....the best thing about this stay was the Executive Lounge where we had breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner as well as drinks all day. When I say dinner, it was really light canapes from 18:00 - to a backpacker - this means fill your plate and it's dinner! After spending some time arranging our onward travels on the Khao San Road - completely unchanged from my last visit in 2003 - we took a magnificent trip out to Kanchanaburi, location of the famous 'Bridge over the River Kwai'. Although cynical from past experiences of Thai organised tours, this one was actually very very good. We first ventured to the war memorial cemetery remembering the thousands who were held captive POWs to build the bridge and railroads. This was understandably an emotional experience, especially for Neil. Then we went to the actual bridge and inevitably they had constructed a makeshift museum to attempt to tell the story in the Thainglish way we have grown to love.
This trip ended with the staple lunch of fried rice, veg and chicken; or so they tell us, and some bamboo rafting which was tame but good fun.
We hotfooted it back to Bangkok to pick up the first of our lengthy bus journeys - headed for Laos. 12 hours later; tired, hungry and smelly in a strange border control point we handed over our dollars and crossed our fingers we'd get visas and therefore entry into Laos - all went well. We travelled by further bus to Vang Vieng. Having travelled to this sleepy village previously with its 3 'happy' pizza restaurants and shacks filling the island to house most of it's inhabitants, I was surprised to see the vast developments that had take place in this mini backpacker mecca. Hundreds of bars and restaurants, yet still pizza everywhere and 'Friends' constantly available for your viewing pleasure. Although a bit fake and developed purely for toursts, Vang Vieng is a fun place to be. Tubing along the Mekong is what this town is most famous for but this has allowed for growth along the river with the Laotians building riverside bars, kayaking centres and zip lines! It's party town indeed all day but we didn't spend all our hours drinking 'Lao Beer' - oh no. In true Kel and Jock style - it wasn't too long before we were trekking through the jungle. Our guide Wan safely led us through the beautiful terrain, up mountains, over water and through a large and eerie cave. Wan excitedly told me how rats lived in the cave - I think he wished he hadn't!
After trekking for the morning, we came to a stunning natural lagoon and waterfall. It was like being in the Jurassic Lost Word, towering jungle, beautiful butterflies, just the two of us bathing in the lagoon....well it is our honeymoon! Wan built a BBQ and made us kebabs - this was a great trip. The following day, we got up early, packed the bags and joined a party of people to kayak to Vientianne, the capital city of Laos. This was the most beautiful weather day yet - stifling hot - Neil's sunburnt feet still haven't recovered. The highlight (for Neil anyway!) was definitely the short section of grade 2 rapids
So over a week in and we're staying in the centre of Vientianne. This city has improved since my previous visit but relatively unchanged. We hired bikes first thing and cycled the city in about half a day. We took in the replica 'Arc de Triumph' which incidentally the Laotians built with funds donated by the Americans for them to build an airport - this seemed fairly typical from what we had learnt about S E Asians thus far! We also saw the Palace and headed to the well known 'Scandinavian Bakery' for a yummy lunch, Western style. The afternoon saw us whiling away the hours in the hot sun in a bamboo shack lining the Mekong reading our books - very pleasant indeed.
Very early on 06 May we took a flight from Vientianne to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Immediately as we arrived we noticed a stark difference in personality between the Khymers compared with the Laotians, and Thai's for that matter. Loud, brash and forceful in their tone and insistent on getting you in their tuk tuk, moto, guesthouse, in their restaurant, on a tour - blah blah blah. We found a cool place to stay, with hot water - result! Siem Reap has developed immensely since my first trip there in '03 - a night swilling Angkor beer in the Temple or Tigre de Papier on Pub Street and you could be on the Costa del Sol - I am not suggesting for one minute that this is a good thing, however it was nice to have a few drinks, speak to some fellow Brits and have a bit of a laugh. The only interruption to our party was a group of terrorising cockroaches that attempted to join in - they were not made welcome.
Siem Reap is the gateway (seemingly also to a hangover) to Angkor Wat - a series of ancient temples, which some consider the 8th Wonder of the World and all will have seen in 'Tomb Raider' no doubt. We hired city bikes and cycled from the city centre, around 10km out to Angkor. The bikes were a fab idea as meant we could get around all the various temples at our own pace with no-one trying to tell us what to do. We cycled for miles and saw some amazing temples. The best has to be the famous Ta Prohm with it's mystifying trees growing their roots around the ancient ruins. This featured heavily in the afore mentioned movie but to see it in it's full glory is really quite something.
08 May and an early morning bus saw us on our way to the capital Phomh Penh. Notso keen on this part of Cambodia about 7 years ago, the place seems only to have worsened rather than improve. Where Siem Reap is buzzing with vibrancy, has cleaned up the city and hosts numerous schools, colleges and universities, Phomh Penh is dirty with litter everywhere, establishments are lifeless and it has a dark vibe, for me drawn from its very horrific and very recent history. We visited Tuol Sleng (or S21) museum, the gruesome location for the barbaric torture which ensued for thousands, if not millions of Cambodians from '75 through '79 during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge regime. The museum holds the original torture weapons used, vistors can walk through the cells and read accounts from survivors or family members, but the most harrowing are the rooms full of the victims' photographs, taken just before they were led into unimaginable torture and eventually, to an untimely and undeserved death.
The morbid tone to this day continued when we headed with 'Ong' our tuk tuk driver to Cheoung Ek- The Killing Fields. Second time around this is still a chilling and terrifying place to visit. This is the exact location at where victims of the regime, mainly from S21 were brought to finally die. Numerous mass graves have been dug up, starting in 1980, but the horrifying truth of quite how many victims were laid into the graves is the worst to take in. A grave fit for maybe 5 grown men would hold up to 60. Walking around the area, we could see remains of bones, clothing and blood stained trees. Finally, there is a stupa holding the skulls of victims buried here - this towering block full of individual skulls from babies to the elderly is a terrifying reminder of the visious regime. Jocks and I didn't say a word to each other for quite a while after this thought provoking experience. We were glad to experience Phomh Penh but also relieved to be leaving.
Onwards onto the waters - 10 May and we're on a small fishing boat with a party of around 8, heading for a tour of the Mekong Delta. This would carry us through into Southern Vietnam and from there we would make our way to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City if a government official happens to peer over the PC at any point!)
This trip would have been amazing if it wasn't for the illness. Ah yes, just over two weeks in was quite a good innings but the bug finally hit. I blame Phomh Penh and it's smelly littered streets an tumbledown restaurants and I won't go into describing the symptoms of 'the illness' as you all have imagination enough to draw your own conlusions but t'was bad! We did see some amzing parts of the delta from our boat on the first day - it was like Venice in the jungle. We didn't miss out on too much - a fishing village and local sarong making community, but it meant we headed straight to Saigoin on a local bus crowded in with Vietnamese villagers. We quickly realisd that in Vietnam, and this could be said for the whole of S E Asia, locals do not want an efficient bus service, taking one from A to B in the quickest time and arriving punctually to get on with the rest of the day. No. The journey by bus is an event in itself, why do a journey in 4 hours when 2 more hours can be wasted stopping every 10 minutes to pick up some papaya or mango or strange looking fish, play the lottery, pick up some chickens - whatever - it is far from efficient but again, an experience. Talking of chickens, seeing a moto driver laden down with geese on his way to Saigon was absolutely hillarious!
We both really loved Saigon. We got a great deal on a guesthouse and had a good room , hot water and cable TV - HBO has become a great love of ours. We visited the Independence Palace, War Remnants museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. We required no guide as Jocky and his lengthy historic knowledge was enough to carry us both through...more than enough! Just kidding, it is fab to have such a knowledgable husband in all things history, war and geography - espescially when the Vietnamese naturally have a very one-sided opinion of the war.
Yesterday we flew to Danang along the Central coast of Vietnam and quickly organised, with some other lost looking groups struggling with backpacks, to get a car through to Hoi An. Adoring this pretty old town back 7 years ago, it has only got better. Cobbled streets and artistry worshods lining the riverside give this town a Spanishesque feel, whilst lanterns line the lanes, subtley so as not to look as though in constant carnival, the main aim of a travellers game here is to get shopping. Hunderds upon hundreds of tailors will make you anything anytime and send to anywhere - we are yet to shop. I know Neil is hugely excited about this prospect (!) so we better get cracking - will be back in touch very soon to update on the next chapter which will be Northern Vietnam, Singapore and then on to Oz.