Monday, December 30, 2013

A Merry Little Christmas in Koh Chang

Anti - government demonstrations in Bangkok were hitting the headlines.  En route to our accommodation, we saw protests outside Makkison and Huamphalong stations, but they appeared to be trouble free and the protesters were in good spirits.  Apparently, four people had been killed in protests elsewhere in the city, and they looked set to continue leading up to the elections in early February.

We had one night at the new Centra Central Station Hotel. With a lobby on the 12th floor (and great views), it was just across from Huamphalong railway station. Recommended.

Next morning the alarm went off at 5.45 am.  A metro train, a sky train, a mini-bus, a songtheaw and a ferry later, we arrived on the island of Koh Chang!

Our homestay, ‘Blessed’ was on the deserted east side of the island, unlike the majority of accommodations, which were on the west.  The songtheaw drivers clearly didn’t want to take us, as they loaded everyone else into the back of the open trucks except for us.  They eventually ascertained where ‘Blessed’ was and we headed off.

From the singular road which went around the island, we were dropped off and walked down a long gravel track through the coconut trees, until we came to the hideaway that was ‘Blessed’.  We were greeted by Orly (from Holland) and Greg (from Australia), who were artists and the creators of ‘Blessed’.

There were only two bungalows and the house where Orly and Greg lived.  There were Gaudi-esque inspired mosaics, sculptures, masks and vibrant colours everywhere you looked, set against the lush jungle vegetation.  Every nook and cranny revealed something of interest.


There were various seating areas on a large grassy area next to the beach, hammocks, a bed, a pagoda with swinging chairs and cushions, all brightly coloured.  The bungalows and house were situated around a creek with a small bridge and pathways connecting them.  Birds, butterflies, geckos, frogs and grasshoppers were abundant.  There was also a residential snake (harmless!) and a dog called Manji.  We were looking forward to spending Christmas in this very unique place.

Because we were so remote, the only way to get around was by scooter.  Never having ridden a scooter before, Greg gave T a lesson on Christmas Eve. We set off to explore the island (or at least our side of it).  It was fun whizzing along the road, with the sea on one side.  We continued until we the road ran out at a fishing village.  We found a beautiful temple, stopped for coffee and a coconut smoothie and brought some rum at one of the tiny stores for Christmas day.

In the evening Orly and Greg organised a BBQ in the pagoda and we had a fire by the beach.  We ate with the couple who were staying in the other bungalow and John, a young Danish guy who helps out here.  The stars were really bright – a very special Christmas Eve.

On Christmas day, Ku took a kayak out in the morning, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant, washed down by some long island iced teas and we returned to ‘Blessed’ to build a fire and play gin rummy.  Orly was leaving the island early the next morning to have a kidney stone operation, so we signed her visitor’s book, took some photographs and said our goodbyes.  They had been so hospitable, encouraging us to treat their home as though it was our own.  They said we could go into their house whenever we wanted to and borrow their DVD’s, books and help ourselves to filtered water.  There was a hut with a fridge full of beer and soft drinks, which we just helped ourselves to and jotted down what we had.

On our final day, Ku went out kayaking in the morning.  At lunchtime, our friend Lars, who happened to be staying on the other side of the island, came to visit us.  John went out on his scooter to pick up some noodles and we spent a few hours catching up with Lars’ adventures in Thailand.


‘Blessed’ was a very special place and it was sad to say goodbye.  Wherever we travel, we don’t think we will ever come across a place quite like it in the world.

Back in the real world, we headed to Bangkok.  It was just the two of us and a mini bus full of Thai soldiers!  We thought that perhaps they were in Bangkok for riot duty.  Yesterday, one of the airports had been cut off by protesters.

Our new abode was The Warehouse, an industrial style hotel located close to The Grand Palace.  The area it was located in was not a tourist area and was the only hotel in a local neighbourhood.  The streets were lined with locals selling second hand items laid out on the pavements and food vendors.  The hotel hallways had the appearance of a prison, but thankfully the rooms weren’t like cells!  They also did a great breakfast – we ticked off the items we wanted on a list, and a few minutes it all appeared in front of us on a tray – all very efficient and delicious too. Highly recommended. 

We arrived at The Grand Palace at opening time and managed to nudge ahead of the tour groups that were starting to appear.  Consequently, we were able to spend some of the time in relative isolation.  Apparently, it gets horribly crowded later on. 


It’s a spectacular complex – a temple housing the revered Emerald Buddha, a golden dome, intricate detail on a massive scale, mythical statues and gold glistening in the sunlight wherever you looked.  It was worth the hefty 500 baht (£10.00) entrance fee!


Afterwards, we walked through the amulet market and the narrow covered alleyways to the river, where we took a boat to Wat Arun on the other side .

Wat Arun is a working monastery, where monks mingle with worshippers and tourists.  Otherwise  known as ‘Temple of the Dawn’, it is 79 metres high. 
The steps up are so steep that you have to pull yourself up on a rope! 

We paid a visit to Khao San Road, the backpackers’ haven.  Crammed with guest houses, restaurants, bars, shops and all manner of traveller services, it hadn’t changed much since we were last there.  It did appear to have grown into more of a traveller village than a single road as streets adjoining Khao San absorbed the overflow.

On Sunday, we set off for a day of temple hopping.  We passed the Democracy Monument, where protesters had set up camp.  There were tents, a huge stage had been erected, stalls were selling whistles and T-shirts and people stood in line waiting for breakfast. It was all very well organised.

We started at The Golden Mount, where a stairway up to the temple led us past waterfalls and statues.  We passed many bells of all sizes, which pilgrims rang on route.  Red prayer flags fluttered against the yellow and white temple.

Adjacent to The Golden Mount, was Wat Saket, which appeared to be dedicated to the animals of the Chinese horoscope. It did seem somewhat strange to see someone worshipping a giant bunny!
There are temples on every street corner in Bangkok and we visited several in the immediate neighbourhood.  They all have slightly different features and layouts and we never tired of exploring them!
On our last day in town, we checked out the Paragon Centre at Siam - a huge modern shopping mall full of designer shops and food courts.  Crowded with Westerners and wealthy Thais, it was a world away from the street our hotel was located on.
We bought a couple of maps in the bookshop, one of Chiang Mai and one of Myanmar.  We were ready for our next destination!







Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ho Ho Ho in Vietnam!

Having accustomed ourselves briefly to Bangkok’s heat on a one night stopover, we flew into the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, several degrees cooler, but still tropical by comparison to the UK, which we had left a few days previously.

We made our way through the bustling streets of Hanoi’s old town, Hoan Kiem.  Each street has a speciality….toys, silk, candy, conical hats, alcohol.  We even came across a sellotape street. This tradition had survived from ancient times (perhaps not sellotape street!). We found our hotel, despite it having changed its name since we booked it (!) in a street which was once known for trading in bricks!


Now known as Hanoi Legacy, the hotel is a contemporary boutique hotel at the bargain price of £8.00 each per night. As we discovered, all the hotels we were to stay at in Vietnam included breakfast which made for a really good deal and assisted the budget considerably.

We spent the next few days exploring the city. Hanoi’s traffic is indeed as crazy as its reputation.  Zillions of motorbikes compete with overloaded cycles, cars and buses for road space.  As a pedestrian, much of the time you are forced to walk in the road (especially in the old town) as the pavements are taken over by parked motorbikes and tiny restaurant seats where patrons sit to eat pho soup and chat.  Crossing roads is a major endeavour!  There are traffic lights, but they are totally ignored and you get honked by oncoming traffic even if the green man sign is telling you it is safe to cross!  Apparently, Ho Chi Minh is even worse!


The Women’s Museum of Vietnam, a large modern building, was a fascinating insight into women’s place in society and especially interesting was the active military and political positions that women have held in Vietnam going back at least over the last hundred years or so.


We popped in to see Ho Chi Minh (otherwise affectionately known as ‘Uncle Ho’).  His corpse is embalmed and laid out in an imposing mausoleum.  Everyone filed in solemnly to pay respects, having been through rigorous security checks.  Soldiers in white uniforms stood on guard.  Uncle Ho looked remarkably well considering he had died in 1969.


The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius and on the day that we visited was also a graduation venue for many graduates who were dressed for the occasion and taking photographs of themselves and each other.  We wandered through the complex, enjoying the festive atmosphere.

We lunched at KOTO, a restaurant adjacent to the Temple of Literature which is run by underprivileged young people and street children.  They are trained in the restaurant and are eventually able to take jobs elsewhere and build better lives for themselves.  The food was delicious, the best we have experienced so far!

The Tran Quoc Pagoda, situated by a lake was a bit of a walk, but worth it.  A peaceful area with an attractive red brick pagoda, it was a nice spot to escape the general mayhem for a while.


We also went to the National History Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and last (but not least), to see the famous Vietnamese Water Puppets!  The show is a colourful, fast moving spectacle accompanied by live music.  Despite nearly falling asleep once or twice due to the lingering effects of jet lag, at £3.00 a ticket, it was a Vietnamese tradition we couldn’t miss!

On our final day in Hanoi (as is often the case when travelling), we had a day of hanging around as we had to check out of our accommodation by midday and our train to Hue didn’t leave until 7.00 pm.  We spent most of the day sitting by Hoan Kiem Lake.  It was a sunny Sunday and busy.  Newly wed couples had their photograph taken by the lake, families strolled and people enjoyed spectacular looking ice cream dishes at the lakeside cafes.  We were approached by many young people wanting to practise their English with us and it turned into a very sociable day!  One person would start a conversation and five minutes later we would be surrounded by a crowd!  We left Hanoi having made lots of new friends!

Fourteen hours after setting out from Hanoi, our train rolled into Hue (pronounced Whey).  We walked a couple of miles or so to our accommodation Hunong Giang Resort and Spa Hotel located next to the Perfume River.  Coming in at £8.50 each per night, this place was amazing!  The staff were friendly and we were upgraded to a luxury room at no extra charge!  We had a huge suite, three balconies, a fridge and TV in each room (?) and a steam shower (fabulous!)  Not bad for a couple of backpackers! 

The area that ran alongside the river was attractive – grass, trees and an interesting array of sculptures.  We went over the river to The Imperial City, which was Vietnam’s capital in ancient times.  It was raining heavily that day though, so we headed back to the comfort of the hotel fairly quickly.  It’s the end of the monsoon season here, and Hue is apparently one of the wettest places in the country.


Being the former capital, the countryside surrounding Hue is home to the tombs of the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802-1945.  We visited the tomb of Khai Dinh, which looked much older than it actually was, but the complex was impressive, looking out over the jungle from a height.  We especially liked the concrete figures of mandarins, horses and elephants on the way up to the mausoleum.

All too soon it was time to leave our luxurious abode and take a rickety old bus through the consistent rain to Hoi An.

Hoi An is a lovely ancient town full of colourful houses, temples, friendly people and tempting shops and restaurants.  Also, tourists, lots of them, more than we had seen or were likely to anywhere else in the country!  Hassle from street vendors was constant as we made our way through town to our new accommodation, but it was usually done with a smile. 


We checked into Huy Hoang River Hotel, this time next to the Thu Bon River and headed straight out for lunch at ‘Streets’.  In the same mode as KOTO in Hanoi, their motto is ‘Good food helping good kids’.  The girl who served us was so tiny that she could barely lift the large noodle bowl! 


Hoi An is enchanting, brightly coloured lanterns hang in shop fronts, incense wafts in the air and birds sing from the cages that hang in front of people’s homes.  Tradition and tourism intermingle as tourists’ window shop or sit in cafes and locals go about their daily business of living.  The market, a hive of activity is at the core of the town.


On our second day in Hoi An, we visited My Son, ancient Cham ruins set in the jungle, about 45 km away.   Some of the temples had been bombed by the USA, as the area was a Viet Cong Field Headquarters, but many remained intact.  Settled between the 8th and 15th century, My Son is an example of early Indian influence in Vietnam.  For a while, we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves and in the absence of chattering tour groups and their guides (who had thankfully moved on), we were able to enjoy the tranquil and beautiful area.  We took a boat along the river back to Hoi An and had lunch in town (more noodles!)


Another day, we walked to Cua Dai beach (5km away), a lovely white sand beach with crashing waves.  Unfortunately, constant hassle from hawkers (no matter how pleasant they were) sent us heading back to town.



From Hoi An, we moved onto Ninh Binh, taking the train from nearby Danang.  The first couple of hours of the journey were very scenic.  The train snaked its way along the track, high above the ocean, and we looked down at the sandy bays and jagged cliffs through gaps in the vegetation. 

Fifteen hours later, we arrived in Ninh Binh.  We stayed at The Queen Hotel, a stone’s throw from the railway station, a snip at £5.00 each a night.  The staff were lovely and let us check in six hours early at no extra charge, which we were grateful for after our long journey.

We ventured out later to get lunch and have a look around, but Ninh Binh is better known for its surrounding area than the town itself.

The next day we headed out early.  We hired a car and driver for the day for the equivalent of £17.00.  He basically took us to all the places we wanted to go to, waited as long as we needed to and then took us back. Perfect.

Not far out of town, the beauty of the surrounding landscape became apparent.  Limestone towers, paddy fields, water buffaloes and tiny temples – typical images that come to mind when you imagine what Vietnam might look like in your travel dreams.

Our first port of call was Tam Coc, where we took a boat up The Ngo Dong River.  The men and women who row the boats, do so with their feet, quite an extraordinary sight!  We passed under three caves during the course of the trip, each time emerging into spectacular scenery.  Because we got there early, we were the only boat out there for much of the time, except for local fishermen, but it apparently becomes much busier later in the day.  We saw a couple of kingfishers. It was a peaceful and relaxing experience.



Further along the road, we checked out Bich Dong, consisting of a number of temples built into a limestone mountain including cave temples.  Prepared with a head torch, it was fun exploring the caves, discovering hidden deities in the corners and then scrambling over rocks for an aerial view from the summit.



Driving on a narrow dirt track, we reached Mua Pagoda.  At the foot of the mountains was a lake and a cave.  Peering into the darkness of the cave, we spotted a tiger (a statue, not a real one!) with some offerings placed at its feet.  The climb to the pinnacle looked somewhat daunting from the bottom, but we made it to the top, stopping to enjoy the view on route and it was definitely worth it!  On one side we looked down on the river that we had been on earlier, and on the other side paddy fields.  The best thing was that we didn’t spot another person! Only mountains goats! This place wasn’t even mentioned in the guide book, but was probably our favourite out of everywhere we visited in the Ninh Binh area!



We continued on, passing through a pretty village to Hoa Lua, the capital of Vietnam from AD 968 to 1010.  We had a pleasant walk through the temples and lily ponds before heading back.

From Ninh Binh, we took the three hour train journey back to Hanoi, where we caught an overnight sleeper train up to Lao Cai on the Chinese border. From there, a mini bus took us along the winding roads to Sapa.

 At 1650m, overlooked by Mount Si Pan, the highest mountain in South East Asia, the area is home to hill tribes including the Hmong and Dao.  In their colourful traditional costumes, they are very evident in town, where they trail visitors attempting to sell handicrafts.  They are very persuasive, have big smiles and an effectively engaging manner.  It was difficult not to be drawn into conversation – they had their sales technique down to a fine art!
Sapa is well known as a trekking base and, similarly to Pokhara in Nepal, is full of trekking and outdoor shops.  There was a good choice of cafes and restaurants too and we ate well while we were there.

Visiting Sapa, at this time of the year (December), however, proved to be an error of judgement! The morning we arrived, the fog was so dense that we couldn’t see our feet in front of us!  Finding our way around town was a challenge!  It wasn’t until we went back to our hotel later and the fog had (temporarily!) lifted, that we realised we were situated opposite a lake and behind us were some mountains!
Our next few days were spent mainly holed up in a cold damp hotel with no heating and condensation running down the walls of our room, while the rain fell relentlessly.  Even the staff were wrapped up in coats, woolly hats and scarves! We went down to breakfast on the first morning and ordered coffee to warm us up. The lovely Manager bought over our coffees announcing ‘hot coffee!’  It was so cold and strong that even T couldn’t drink it! The omelettes were in fact, fried eggs. It was like the Vietnamese Fawlty Towers and instead of getting annoyed we got hysterical with laughter!
We did make it to Ham Rong (Dragons Jaw Hill) before the rain set in.  Although we weren’t able to see Mount Fan Si Pan through the mist, there were some cool rock formations, caves and grottos.  Bizarrely, there were also some gigantic statues of Scooby Doo, Mickey Mouse and various other characters set amongst the rocks!

We borrowed huge umbrellas to venture into town at lunchtimes and looked for the restaurants with log fires, just to keep warm!  One day we sampled the hot wine – red wine, cinnamon, honey, apple and lemon. T tried the grog – rum, honey, cinnamon, honey and sugar  (medicinal) and Ku had some local plum wine. Very warming and just what was required! To make matters worse, we believe the hotel staff thought we had stolen one of their umbrellas! Three different staff enquired after the elusive umbrella! It was quite obvious with our small backpacks we could not hide this umbrella!

After three days of consistent rain, it finally stopped raining, only to start snowing!  Apparently, the last time that it had snowed here was three years ago!  Thankfully, we made it to the railway station through the snowstorm in an overcrowded mini van.  We couldn’t wait to get back to Hanoi!
We enjoyed a relaxing last few days in Hanoi, further exploring the streets, small hidden
temples and returning to our favourite restaurant, KOTO.
We had a 'Ho Chi Minh day' when we went to the museum honouring the revered leader's life. It was interesting and visually impressive, with some unexpected art installations here and there.  We also visited his house on stilts, which is situated in a peaceful area, next to a lake behind the presidential palace.  Apparently, he refused to live in the presidential palace claiming that it belonged to the people.

We discovered 'Christmas Street' in Hoan Kiem, shop after shop full of snowmen, Santa Claus costumes, tinsel, trees and all the usual festive paraphernalia!   We had noticed more and more Christmas lights and decorations appearing all over the country.  It seemed that even though only a small percentage of the population is Christian (it is overwhelmingly Buddhist), the Vietnamese don't need an excuse to celebrate.  Some of our meals were even accompanied by Christmas music!

We also took a trip ($30.00 each) to the jewel in Vietnam's crown, Halong Bay.  We were lucky to have a beautiful day, blues skies and sunshine.  After four hours on a mini bus (our least favourite form of transport!), we arrived at Halong City, where we boarded our boat.  We had lunch on board - fish, salad, rice, chicken with beansprouts, shellfish and eggs with watermelon for dessert. T enjoyed the veggie option - taro cake and peanuts!
We stopped off at some amazing caves .  The stalactites, stalagmites, pillars and various other rock formations were illuminated by coloured lights and it was like entering a huge fantasyland.  It was possible to make out the shapes of faces and animals in the weird and wonderful rock formations.

We continued on the boat through the stunning limestone outcrops to a fishing village, where the locals lived on floating platforms.  The boat returned to Halong City.  We braved the chilly air on the top deck to watch the big red ball of sun sink into the horizon.

Our first visit to Vietnam has been a fascinating insight into the country's history, culture and people.  We have experienced snow and sunshine, kind and hospitable people, beautiful landscapes and ancient temples.  And now, it's off to Thailand for Christmas!