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Road Trip to Hue, South Vietnam

March 16 – 23, 2017

So far, so good! Up to this point in our six month journey through Southeast Asia we had been our own travel agents and, frankly, had done pretty well! 

No missed flights or trains, no arriving in the wrong city at the wrong time and, in most cases, being able to book accommodation that was well located, comfortable and priced right.

However, when planning our trip from Hoi An to Hue, we decided to use a travel agency that offered a private car and driver service.  It had been a long trip and we didn’t relish dragging our bags on and off buses one more time!

Checking online, we found a company called VM Travel and started a Chat conversation with one of the agents.  Little did we know that this would develop into a personal as well as business relationship and greatly enhance our enjoyment of the ancient city of Hue (pronounced ‘hway’) 

Cham Kingdom Ruins, My Son, South Vietnam

Instead of taking a half day to visit the nearby Cham ruins at My Son while in Hoi An, we decided to incorporate it into our drive north to Hue where we planned to spend a week.  It was a bit of a detour but worked out perfectly. At 7:30am we left the Sun Boat Hotel in a very comfortable vehicle with our English speaking driver, Henry, from VM Travel.

The 25 mile (40Km) drive took us over an hour through small towns, farmland and through mountain ranges that surround the ruins.  We bought our tickets – 150,000 VND each ($6.50), walked across a bridge to the shuttle boarding area where we were driven to the site.  Fortunately, due to our early arrival, there were very few other visitors and we were able to slowly walk among the ruins and get some excellent photographs.

Having visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we were aware of the history between the Khmer and the Cham peoples.  In fact, we had seen the destruction and defacing of several Angkor temples that occurred during battles between the two powerful Kingdoms.  

My Son, the site of Vietnam’s most significant ancient ruins, was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO.org  “During the 4th to 13th centuries there was a unique culture on the coast of contemporary Vietnam, owing its spiritual origins to the Hinduism of India. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower temples in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.”

The site is divided into sections and we decided to spend time in three temple areas only, due to our long drive to Hue. We knew in advance that these Hindu temple ruins were no match for the grandeur of Angkor, nonetheless, we found them historically and visually intriguing. 

Unfortunately, the site has suffered damage from several wars, and the bombing during the Vietnamese War is evident in craters on the site including a huge B52 bomb crater close to the cluster of temples we visited.   The surrounding forest area is still not clear of unexploded ordinance so signs are posted to remain on the paths.

As we left around 10:00am, the parking lot was completely full of large motor coaches and literally hundreds of tourists were streaming towards the temple ruins!  Tour leaders from every country you could think of were holding up flags, herding their group in the right direction.  We looked at each other, rolled our eyes and were thankful for our early start!

Da Nang

We continued our journey north on National Highway 1A to the city of Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city.  It is situated close to a stretch of pristine beach known during the Vietnam War as China Beach, where American soldiers went for R&R.  This area is rapidly being developed by international resort hotels and Casinos.

We declined Henry’s suggestion to stop at Marble Mountain, a series of five marble and limestone mountains considered sacred by the Vietnamese. Marble was previously extracted from the area and visitors now tour caves, some with Buddhist Pagodas, as well as climbing up numerous steps to enjoy a view of the surrounding area.  Sounded like too much work for us!  Instead we stopped briefly at “Marble Village” which is nothing more than a large shop selling stunning marble sculptures of every size and color.  Of course, they are happy to ship your purchases home for you!

Side note: the Marble Mountain caves were a base for the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war, a large one supposedly being used as a hospital. 

By now it was time for lunch and Henry recommended a seafood restaurant in Da Nang.  Vietnam is known for its fresh seafood and we immediately agreed.  It turned out to be a restaurant where tanks of different kinds of live fish, eels and shellfish are displayed for your selection.  With help from Henry and the restaurant staff, Bill made a selection for our Hot Pot while Priscilla enjoyed a beer at the table, waiting to be served!  Bill then went into the kitchen to “supervise” the preparation! 

The meal was delicious!  There is a special way to eat and enjoy a Hot Pot and Henry and the restaurant staff helped us make a dipping sauce, also cook the various vegetables, noodles and seafood in the right order at our table.  It was the most expensive meal we had in Vietnam but worth every dong!

Hai Van (Sea Clouds) Pass

We still had a 63 mile (102Km) drive to reach the city of Hue and although it would have been faster to drive through the Hai Van Tunnel – the longest in Southeast Asia – we decided to drive over the mountains on the Hai Van Pass to take in the scenic views along the way.  At this time of year the weather can be cold and wet and unfortunately our panoramic views were somewhat obscured in misty rain. Nevertheless, we could understand why this road is known as one of the most scenic coastal roads in the world.   

After winding up and around hairpin bends we reached the summit where we climbed up to the bunkers and a French fort, both of which were used during the Vietnam War.  Due to the spectacular view from this point, it’s a popular location for couples to take Wedding photos – even on a cold, windy day!

It was an exhilarating day for us, the only disappointment being that when we checked into our Airbnb property in Hue we found it was, in fact, a hotel!  We had been hoping for a great experience like we had in Ho Chi Minh City but there was not much we could do about it as we had paid in advance for a week. We alerted Airbnb about the false advertising, hoping to prevent others from being disappointed.

The hotel was well located and, after settling into our room (75 stairs and no elevator!) we headed for the DMZ, a nearby bar to relax and watch the world go by.  We were excited about exploring this ancient city with the help of VM Travel.

 

Photo Album: https://goo.gl/photos/LuV1hDqhQ1Qxtu2i8

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Phnom Penh, the Pearl of Asia

Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017

Phnom Penh

Love it! Or hate it!  We got both these reactions when talking to other travelers about Phnom Penh!  We actually liked it and wished we’d spent more than a week there.

There is a sense of energy and excitement in the city and yet along the riverfront life takes on a slower pace during the day, with coffee shops and restaurants inviting tourists like ourselves to sit a while and watch the boats along the river.  At night the street turns into a backpackers party mecca!

It was here, one lunchtime, that we met an interesting couple from Chicago who had sold their home and all their possessions and had been traveling since 2015, house-sitting as much as possible.  They gave us the name of the agency they used to find house-sitting “jobs” and had our heads spinning with great ideas about our possible next adventure!

The hotel we chose was in a quiet part of town, one where Embassy and Government officials live, making it extra safe.  A $3 Tuk Tuk ride got us wherever we needed to go around town.

Situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since the French colonization in 1867.  Today it’s the center of commerce, government and diplomatic missions, attracting international business travelers as well as tourists.

Once known as the Pearl of Asia due to its beautiful French colonial buildings, today you have to search them out amidst the new buildings and traditional Cambodian houses.  Everywhere we looked we saw cranes rising into the skyline erecting yet another skyscraper – either a hotel, apartment complex or office center.

As in most Southeast Asia cities, markets and street food stalls abound offering food that is inexpensive and delicious.

A note about Visas in Southeast Asia

The first thing we needed to take care of when we arrived in Phnom Penh was our Vietnam Visas.  Vietnam requires that visas be obtained prior to arrival so we used Facebook Messenger to contact about a dozen travel companies in town to see who could assist us.  Within a few minutes we had a reply from 2World Travel   and arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us there, fully expecting to spend about an hour filling out forms, producing passport photos, etc.

Much to our surprise, the agent took our passports, gave us a receipt for payment ($60 each for a 90 day visa) and said the visas would be ready in three days!  No paperwork or photos required!  We had taken copies of our main Passport page with us so we had identification while we were without our Passports.  Three days later, as we were enjoying breakfast at our hotel, a courier arrived with our Passports duly stamped with our Vietnam Visas!  Wow … we were impressed!  This was the most painless Visa process we had experienced on our trip!

2 World Travel also offers tours within Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia and if their tour service is anything like their Visa service, we feel confident their clients will be extremely satisfied.

Royal Palace

Unlike Laos, where the Royal Palace is used as a Government building and not open to the public, the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh welcomes visitors. The King, currently His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, lives in the Palace which is also used for Court Ceremonies.

We decided to have a 45 minute guided tour and, although our guide spoke good English and was knowledgeable, we think it would have been better to use an audio tour instead so we could take it at our own pace.  The Palace closes at lunch time so it’s important to get there early to avoid being forced to leave!

The grounds and buildings are beautifully maintained and, in fact, reminded us of the Royal Palace in Bangkok.  Within the Palace grounds are several Stupas, the Throne Room and the spectacular Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is inlaid with 5,329 solid silver tiles!   It contains priceless treasures including the Emerald Buddha made of Baccarat crystal dating back to the 17th century and another Buddha statue decorated with 198lbs (90kg) of gold and over 9,000 diamonds!

Shoes off and no photos in this building!  Although it was quite crowded inside, we were still able to appreciate the splendor of the building and its treasures.

We were fascinated with the mural on the inside of the compound wall which, we found out, was the Khmer version of the Ramayana.  Restoration work was in progress and, when finished, will add greatly to this superb Royal Residence.

What Else Did We Do in Phnom Penh?

After traveling through three countries and twelve cities, each one claiming to have the most famous Wat (Temple), one gets a little leery about visiting yet another!  Wat Phnom, located on the only hill in the area, close to Riverside was worth a quick visit to see the temple sanctuary and grand staircase guarded by lions and nagas (snakes).  An event was about to take place and many monks were arriving which made an interesting scene.

We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia, just north of the Royal Palace.  The striking traditional style building sets the stage for what is considered the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It’s a good idea to have a guide here to explain the many different pieces otherwise they all look alike after a while!

Of course there is plenty more to see and do in Phnom Penh – more wats, more markets, river boat cruises, etc. but we also needed time to relax so these will have to wait until next time!

Cambodia has a long and at times violent history and we expected it to be obviously Communistic.  However, we learned that it is a Constitutional monarchy governed under a Constitution enacted in 1993.  The Monarch is chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne from among members of the Royal Family, and the Government is headed by a Prime Minister. It’s interesting to note that the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge!

Cambodia is also listed in the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world although, as visitors, we were not aware of this.  The country has much to do to fight widespread poverty, lack of political freedom, damage to the environment and low per capita income, however, it has the fastest growing economy is Asia and the tenacity of the people leads us to believe that – with time – these challenges can be overcome.

As is so often the case, it’s the People who leave a lasting impression and, for that reason, Cambodia is definitely a favorite of ours!

Photo Link: https://goo.gl/photos/Ncd4jZdDanQSVNNs6 

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