[ CLICK ON IMAGES TO VIEW PHOTO ALBUMS]
25th March - 1st April: Hong Kong
Accommodation: 3-Bedroom Apartment in Wanchai
Having done a World Cup & British Lions tour the thinking was that we should complete our rugby set with the 2014 Hong Kong Sevens, given that it's regarded among the crown jewels of rugby events. So it was that Ray, Nicky, Paul, Judy & myself set off on another journey into the unknown. We were to be joined the following day by Phil & Gwyn Davies, who were making a delayed regal arrival in recognition of Phils impending 60th birthday, which was to be crowned off with a visit to his genealogical heritage among the Orang-utans of Borneo.
Enduring the Boeing 777 after the delights of the Airbus A380 is not to be recommended but Cathay Pacific were our imposed choice so bear it we must. Emerging bleary-eyed in Hong Kong Airport we sailed through immigration with such ease that we were halfway to the city on the Airport Express when I realised I hadn't picked up the match tickets, oops! No worries it could be done the next morning. After a tiring journey I have to admit I found the claustrophobic size of the buildings somewhat overwhelming when we left the MTR station at Wan Chai, it was to be some days before I came to terms with it.
Unfortunately that was something that was never to happen with regard to the choice of apartment, compact doesn't cover it! It'd been booked using AirBnB and, let's just say, the photos were deceptive! To try temper the negativity we set about exploring the city with, initially, a limited degree of success. Chance thrust us upon a very kind Aussie bird having a smoke who took us up to a panoramic viewing floor high in her office block, whereupon she gave friendly, & necessary, advice to boot. Subsequently, a few beers & a bite to eat restored a bit of humanity. It would've been all too easy to call it a night then but Searlie pushed us out in search of the elusive pub, from which we found . . . . . . The Doghouse! Each of us in turn experienced flagging and resurgence as we somehow lasted out until the early hours of what turned into a cracking night. Unfortunately even the abundant alcohol couldn't entirely overcome the failings of the accommodation, apart from trying to fit 6'3" Paul into a 6'2" bed, Ray & Nicky's bed not only sloped but the mattress was, apparently, created as a prototype for the M25 concrete. I, by the way, was very comfortable in my bottom bunk backing onto the services shaft of the building.
Once dressed, Paul accompanied me back to the airport to collect the tickets only to be informed that all passports were required & no amount of pleading cut any muster with the stern ticketmeisters so we forlornly trudged back to base, virtually empty-handed, with yet another airport trip in the offing. A traditional Cantonese brunch (everything on the menu!) kickstarted the day so a plan was made to help get our bearings further. An open-top bus tour led to the Peak Tram from where we gained the ultimate city views from The Peak, not to mention some lovely cakes :} By now Phil & Gwyn had arrived so arrangements were made to meet at Central Pier so we could visit the, as it turned out, disappointing Temple Street market, though our street food at Spicy Crab made the journey very worthwhile. From there it was back to The Doghouse for another rumbustious end to the night. Nicky & I even won a couple of rugby shirts for our twinkling toes with my Bill Medley to her Jennifer Warnes, although the only ones dancing for those few minutes we were indeed having "the time of our lives".
A further painful, sleepless night had finally done for Nicky so arrangements were made for them to join Phil & Gwyn at The Excelsior. While they relocated I journeyed, once again, to the airport for the tickets. Paul & Judy meanwhile procured some tickets at the ground so we were now all set for the rugby, phew!
The atmosphere in the stadium was buzzing already when I finally rejoined the others via one of the iconic trams on the first afternoon, even with the fumbling efforts of the junior competition. Let's face it, we had warm weather, beer & food, what more could you want! After a late finish the walk back took us to Times Square & its abundance of eateries. Our choice, Manzo, proved to be top notch with something to satisfy every taste. The couple of heavy nights had, by now, taken their toll so a rare moment of sensibility decreed an early night, not to mention failing to find a pub in Causeway Bay!
Saturday morning brought renewed energy & relief at not having to go back to the airport! A quick & cheap taxi to the ground later & we were soon reunited with the others in the East Stand, good choice as it happened as we were hit with the mother of all storms. It was incredible to see as day virtually became night & the rain bucketed down, driven in by a strong wind. Thankfully it was soon over & play underway again, the usual suspects, New Zealand & Fiji, were looking good, England, quite frankly, bloody awful. Somehow, however, we kept scraping wins.
I have to say that while I expected a good atmosphere I never thought it would be quite as great, helped in no small part by most being in fancy dress (not us, down to me I think). For some reason beer wasn't allowed in the stand so a pattern emerged whereby the blokes would nick off for beer breaks & the girls would ensure we had some food as well, someone always had to stay to keep the seats. After an entertaining days play it was back to Times Square where we had another cracking meal, this time at SML, so called as all dishes came in small, medium or large portions, great concept and lovely food.
Sunday was to be the day the Lion finally roared as England first smashed South Africa then Fiji to gain an unlikely place in the final, where a typically ruthless New Zealand would prove a bridge too far, though we showed terrific guts in defeat and they'd, as usual, easily been the best in the competition. Unlike under the Martin Johnson regime, the players had the good grace to acknowledge the raucous support of the fans.
Once the presentations had been made, as if by divine decree, the heavens opened once more delaying our return to The Doghouse, where we were ultimately to enjoy a final big session as the following night was already set to be a more orderly, though no less enjoyable, affair. For Paul & Judy it was to be their last night in the apartment as they to would relocate the next morning to The Excelsior, where we would be celebrating Phils 60th birthday in fine style on our final night in town. That the window in Pauls bedroom had failed to withstand the torrential rain could almost have been a final celestial nudge from above.
We'd decided to spend our last day escaping the skyscrapers for the comparative serenity of Stanley. Once again, while the girls perused the local market the boys sampled the local food & drink. Not enough to spoil the appetite mind you! A bus & MTR delivered us back in good time to pamper & preen for the night ahead.
It seems apt that the restaurant in the hotel should be called ToTT's, obviously with due deference to our visit. With all suitably attired for such surroundings, Gwyn & Phil kindly shouted everyone to a meal fit for such a milestone occasion, a fabulous end to a terrific week, tomorrow we would all be going our separate ways.
1st - 4th April: Hanoi
Accommodation: Royal Palace Hotel II - £18 per night, double room
After a very easy start to the morning, slowly packing in readiness for Hanoi and giving the apartment a barely needed tidy, I headed to Hong Kong Station where, very conveniently, you can check in your baggage, how cool is that! After a peruse around the shopping mall and a spot of breakfast I was soon aboard the Airport Express for, thankfully, the last time. The airport is, at best functional, with a wide variety of restaurants & a few shops but little artistic or aesthetic merit. At least there was free wi-fi to while away the time.
Stormy Hong Kong weather had resulted in a delay and a subsequently turbulent, though otherwise eventless, flight which arrived in Hanoi an hour late. Unfortunately this and the time taken to go through the, pretty efficient, Visa On Arrival procedure meant that my very affable young driver, Nghia, had been waiting around for two hours. I’d arranged my visa through www.vietnamvoa.com before leaving England as they had good reviews and were the cheapest, $8 for the approval letter then $45 on arrival. Update: Good news! UK passport holders have visa-exemption for 15 day visit between 1st July 2015 and 30th June 2016 click for latest info
With undiminished good nature Nghia respectfully asked if I'd mind speaking to him during the hour-long journey as he was trying to improve his, already good, English. This is something I was to encounter often throughout my journey and been generally happy to do, it's not as though I didn't have the time after all, and it would also give me the chance to get a small insight into life in the country. All I asked in return was that he teach me how to cross the notorious Hanoi roads.
After a warm welcome at the grandly titled Royal Palace Hotel II, which is neither a palace nor particularly regal, I'd quickly dumped the bags and was exploring the streets armed with a map and very little idea, maybe a quick read of the Rough Guide I'd been carrying would've helped!?!? I wrongly expected there'd be bars near the night market, unbeknown to me I was one street out, doh! Initially I was unconcerned as it was nice to stretch the legs but after about an hour going in the same direction I was getting hot and very thirsty so decided to head back. Imagine my surprise at discovering I'd blindly walked past two bars within ten minutes of the hotel. My enquiry about a beer was greeted with a mardy-arsed "we close at 11!", as it was 10:20 I didn't see her problem but knew I'd be pushing it if I tried for a third after two swifties. Good thing as it happened as Coyen Restaurant (since renamed Madam Yen ) down the road fed & watered me at 10:55, I even got service with a smile. This I repaid by eating there every night, great food it was to! First lesson was learnt, legally bars & restaurants in Vietnam close at 11pm.
No need for an alarm in Hanoi as the beeping of horns starts well before the dawn chorus, even in a relatively secluded room the constant drone of motorbike engines & horns is inescapable. Off I went again, map in hand, this time to find a Vietcombank ATM which, apparently, didn't charge for withdrawals. Fact is they all charge but the two cheapest I found to be Vietcombank & Agribank, which charged 1%. Task completed I'd decided to visit the Hao Lo Prison, the notorious 'Hanoi Hilton', to get a bit of insight into the various conflicts of which I was, hitherto, pretty ignorant. An hour or so spent wandering around served its purpose as a good introduction to events which have shaped the country
With cultural requirements met for the day it was time to find the infamous 'International Bia Hoi Corner', by now armed with directions from my Rough Guide. Task completed I took my, ridiculously small, seat on one of the corners and was soon quaffing the, surprisingly delicious & refreshing, Bia Hoi. I was soon chatting to a London couple and exchanging experiences of the journey so far & to come, standard procedure when 'travelling' I quickly learnt. They went and were soon replaced by Danes Oliver & Alexander and Filipino designer Jof Sering, this was to be the core group of the afternoon. Others came and went from Australia & more Brits, plenty of good conversation and loads of Bia. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to discover that the bar staff seemed only able to count to six resulting in a bill of £3 for 5 hours drinking, marvellous! Some much needed food at the excellent Coyen & it was an early night for me with a bit of TV to finish off a great day
After a good nights sleep, I set off mid-morning to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Museum and War Museum. The walk there takes you through an altogether more salubrious neighbourhood of grand embassies & houses set along tree-lined boulevards. Unfortunately by failing to read my guide yet again meant I was too late for the Mausoleum so I made do with continuing my education at the Museum, under the tutelage of a very pleasant young lady who was still very much in touch with the party message. From there it was to the War Museum to see lots of old military equipment, a common theme throughout Vietnam I was to discover. After a bit of brekkie at the very pleasant cafe there my thirst buds could hear the Bia Hoi calling so it was back to The Corner for a session not too dissimilar to the previous day with the same bill at the end of it, I could get used to this! A final visit to my favourite (only) restaurant in Hanoi saw out another enjoyable day, a 6am train the next morning demanded an early night, the Bia Hoi ensured I had no problem sleeping :}
Since returning home I have learnt of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, which is an Australian charity whose work ranges from rescuing children from trafficking to teaching them life skills. Even simple things like arranging a game of football means so much to these kids. I'd one day like to return to Hanoi to help out in some way but for the moment will support their unbelievable work with the occasional donation through Paypal. For me it's a small price to pay to bring a smile to a childs face, take a look at their website and get inspired!
4th - 6th April: Cat Ba Island & Haiphong
Cat Ba: Phuong Mai Family Hotel - £7 per night, double room
Haiphong: Monaco Hotel - £19 per night, double room
In amongst my meanderings around Hanoi I'd actually visited the railway station to check out the process for buying tickets, you'd have thought while there I'd have bought the bloody thing! So it was that my attempt to buy a 2nd-class air-conditioned seat at 5am came to nought with only 3rd-class being sold on the morning of travel, what was even more stupid was that I'd read this, somewhat important, fact when doing my research. Good thing was that the ticket I could buy was only £2 and the journey was both entertaining & reasonably comfortable.
Initial impressions didn't augur well as an elderly Vietnamese firebrand & his baguette were occupying my place on the bench seat, I signalled that it was my seat to be met with a skyward glance and a reluctant allowance of a third of the bench, the bloody baguette had more room than me!!! Having taken breath briefly he was soon putting the world to rights again. Luckily he wanted to include the whole carriage in his musings so was soon hopping from seat to seat seeking debate, this gave me a chance to relocate the baguette onto his bag and claim my rightful place where I was to be joined by a student wanting to talk English. I'd also been helped out by an employee of the US Embassy who turned on my fan to help ease my melting in the morning heat.
Trains in Vietnam are notoriously late and ours was no exception, this meant a mad taxi dash to the hydrofoil with fellow 'farang', Joachim from Germany, who I'd only met on disembarking. I was already prepared for the ticket touts at the terminal and rebuffed their badgering with a firm "No, too expensive!", to which they came back with "Ah, you very smart, yeah, me very expensive" smiling all the way, what they knew that I didn't was that there wasn't anyone at the ticket office. "Yeah, I very expensive!" as I handed over the dong . . . . . . they didn't gloat much
The only good thing that could be said about the crossing to Cat Ba is that it only lasted 45 minutes, the ancient hydrofoil being well past its scrappage date. I was soon trundling my suitcase down the harbourside towards Phuong Mai Family Hotel, the accommodation of Mr Khan & his family. To call it a hotel would be stretching it but my en-suite room above his hairdressers was only $12 a night, immaculately clean with a wonderful view of the harbour. After booking my Halong Bay trip for the following day I decided to take it pretty easy with a nice walk I found along the clifftop and a chill on the nearby beach from where I could admire the numerous black kite gliding overhead, unfortunately I was never quick enough with the camera to actually photograph one! The evening was as laidback as the island itself and, after a few beers & bit of fodder, an early night was called for as I had another early start in the morning.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and regarded as one of the wonders of our world today, while I agree the limestone karsts hold an ethereal beauty, especially in the hazy light of our day, unless the Vietnamese do something about the amount of rubbish floating amongst the diesel film on the water the experience will not be savoured as it should. Our traditional (old!) boat first visited the less celebrated, and cleaner, Lan Ha Bay for a bit of kayaking. I was partnered with Joachim and we were soon racing against Tasmanian devils Jim & Angela, competitive these bleeding Aussies! After a bit of fun it was back on board the Skylark for a spot of, very tasty, lunch. The rest of the trip was pretty mundane and, quite frankly, went on a couple of hours too long. One thing that did come out of it all though was that Jim & Angela completely re-arranged the rest of their holiday after hearing the enthusiasm the united nations of travellers onboard had for Hoi An, my next stop on the journey. By the time I met them for dinner that night the flights & hotel had been booked for the next morning. I, in turn, would be joining them the following day after a pretty uneventful stopover staying at the Monaco Hotel in Haiphong, the main port in Vietnam & given particular attention by the Americans during the war, the only noteworthy thing was seeing the town square turned into a racetrack for toddlers in little electric cars, very cute
6th - 11th April: Hoi An & Huế
Hoi An: Hoi An Garden Villas - £27 per night, double room
Huế: Than Thien Friendly Hotel - £13 per night, double room
Staying in Haiphong served its purpose as the short trip to the small local airport meant a far more relaxing commute to Da Nang, from where it would be a 45 minute taxi ride to Hoi An which I’d pre-arranged through the hotel. It was interesting on approaching the airport for landing to see the amount of resort hotels under construction on the beautiful 30km stretch of beach which serves the two resorts. A closer look en-route along the coast road reveals a huge amount of foreign investment into the area with two championship golf courses and a huge casino already built, there’s barely a space being left unfilled.
I was soon checking into the delightful Hoi An Garden Villas, which was every bit as nice as the reviews had suggested. I have to admit a chuckle as I entered my poolside room as it was much bigger than the entire apartment in Hong Kong had been, complete with a 9’ wide bed! With map in basket, I was soon astride one of the free bikes provided ready to explore, problem was the map was illegible and I reckon I actually did 6km before I managed to find the Old Town which, I’m assured, was only 1km away! Initially I went completely the wrong way but was put straight by the very helpful Aussie owner of the Dingo Deli, which was to become my regular stop for a decent coffee & cake. Never mind, it was a beautiful day and I was enjoying poodling about on the bike, especially as it meant the beer at the end of it would’ve been well deserved.
As with the hotel, when I finally found the Old Town it didn’t disappoint. Narrow streets lined with quaint bars, restaurants, tailors, leather goods and shoe shops, this is now THE place in Asia to get any clothes or shoes made cheaply, unfortunately my already bulging case meant I couldn’t take advantage of it! I quickly got the pre-requisite tourist snaps of the Japanese & ornamental bridge, that would be it culturally as, for me, the ambiance of the town itself was the attraction. I was to get an unexpected insight into local life on a visit to the beach as an unguarded moment resulted in my talking to hawker My Soong. Usually any approach was given short shrift but she cannily managed to engage my attention while hiding her wares, something I was to appreciate as her story was both compelling and informative. Because of having to leave school at 11 years old to support her family she’d had very little formal education, in spite of this she articulated well in English. Now 31 her only ambition was that her two children would go to university in the hope it would at least give them the chance of a better life. She explained that she got to keep 30% of sales so the £10 I eventually spent would give her £3, which is more than her husband earnt per day as a security guard. Chances are that I was being spun a yarn but she was to come back an hour later beaming to tell me she’d had another sale and I’d been her ‘Lucky Buddha’, played or not that smile was real!
Over my three days there I’d meander around town enjoying the great food, a few cocktails and more than a few beers. Amusingly I was propositioned by one of the pancake sellers, “you singoo, me singoo to, you nee goo wi may you happy”, an invitation I graciously declined with a smile. Cycling home in the dark at the end of each night without lights wasn’t one of my brighter decisions but, thankfully, I came through unscathed. Of particular note were the delicious meals I had a The Cargo Club and Tam Tam Café, I was also drawn to The Dive Bar by some good music and it turned out to be a great bar to finish off each night with a Jamesons or two.
My decision to visit Huế proved to be a mistake on every front. I’d originally planned to take a train as it's reputedly the most attractive rail journey in the country but, by doing so, I would’ve missed the views afforded by going over the Hai Van Pass so I opted to pay $70 for a taxi. What I was unaware of was the 40km per hour speed limit which would be meticulously observed, understandable given the zeal with which the police chase bribes when broken. What resulted was a painfully uninspiring five hour crawl to cover 140km, made worse by my young driver having the charisma of an amoeba! While the stop-off at Marble Mountain was slightly interesting, the Hai Van Pass was totally underwhelming.
While an extra night in Hoi An would’ve definitely been the better choice, I didn’t actually have a bad time in Huế. I happened upon a pretty decent bar while trying to get away from the incessant horns and, as usual, was soon chatting with fellow travellers, from which I was to learn that 'Agent Orange' wasn't, as I'd obliviously thought, some nasty little commie but a chemical weapon developed by the Americans to destroy all vegetation the Viet Cong might be able to hide in. I'm sure a good few Aussies might be surprised to learn that it was also manufactured in Australia. The effects are still being felt as many disfigured & severely handicapped children were subsequently born as a result. The main attraction in Huế is The Citadel which, unfortunately, I found it pretty uninteresting, this may have been down to my mood though. Thankfully it was only for one night, the hotel & staff at Than Thien Friendly Hotel were good and, like Haiphong, the local airport was nearby for an easy commute.
11th - 15th April: Ho Chi Minh City
Accommodation: Duc Vuong Hotel - £19 per night, double room
I’d taken an evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City so it was dark by the time the taxi delivered me to the Duc Vuong Hotel, slap bang in the middle of the girly-bar district. It proved to be an unlikely oasis amongst the chaos as my room, while not overly spacious, was comfortable & well equipped. The top floor restaurant was pleasant to enjoy breakfast in and the rooftop bar had panoramic views of the area. In reception there were computers free to use and all of the staff were friendly & helpful. I was soon checking out the area and happened upon The Spotted Cow, a sports bar showing wall-to-wall football, rugby & AFL. Heathen as it may seem, after two weeks of solid Asia it was a welcome bit of home comfort, the barramundi & pasta making a nice change from noodles.
Next morning it was out into the stifling heat & humidity to check out the War Remnants Museum, which had much the same captured artillery as Hanoi but totally surpassed it inside, where the story of the war was told in graphic detail. The top floor gallery especially proved too much to bear for many tearful American visitors as its story was depicted by US journalists & photographers, carefully chosen, I hasten to add, for maximum effect by the Vietnamese. On the way back I had a peruse around Ben Thanh Market, which busily assaults all of your senses and you very much need to be in the mood for. I was actually more in need of a beer so spent the rest of the afternoon near my hotel at Universal Bar talking rugby with some (abundantly ever-present) Antipodeans.
Ever the fun seeker (?!) I was up bright & early next morning for the trip to Cu Chi Tunnels. Fortunately I had the front seat in the packed bus so got most benefits from the fan. It also meant I had my back to our guide, Mr Bien, so could thankfully zone in or out of his recollections of the war as, after a while, his self-aggrandisement got very tiresome. Unfortunately one guy in particular was lapping up his every word so encouraged him to talk the whole way there AND BACK!!! On the way we stopped at a workshop for the disabled where much of the disability was, even now, due to the effects of Agent Orange. The tunnels are a testament to the ingenuity and dogged determination of the Viet Cong, stumbling along a specially widened 200m section was about all I could take yet they used to live down there! There was also the opportunity to shoot a wide range of weapons while there, though it’s not something I’ve ever felt the need to do.
Back in HCMC the bus dropped some off at the war museum but, as I'd already done it and I was hot & thirsty, I opted to try one of the most popular bars, Allez Boo. That should really read notorious as the place was awash with old Aussie blokes salivating over the bar staff, of which there were way more than needed, if you get my drift. I got chatting with three guys from Byron Bay who were regular travellers throughout Asia. Their motive for being there aside they were a good craic and it made for an enjoyable afternoon. Given that the bar was twice as expensive as any that I'd used, there was definitely nothing to recommend it. That night, after a final hit of delicious Vietnamese food at the nearby Five Oysters, I was back in the Spotted Cow to watch the footy, Liverpool v Man City. Every scouser in Asia must’ve been there, at least I knew my valuables would be safe in the hotel that night! In some way they did me a favour as I had a very early bus to Phnom Penh next morning so was driven to have an early-ish night as I couldn’t take that god-forsaken whining accent any longer!
14th - 17th April: Phnom Penh
Accommodation: Eureka Villas - £26 per night, double room
First thing to do when preparing to visit Cambodia is check out www.canbypublications.com website, where you can view or download good guides to all of the tourist destinations. If you're lucky you'll find free copies in your hotel, I found them much better to use than Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Research had revealed that the preferred currency is actually the US Dollar, which you can withdraw without surcharge from Canadia Bank, among others Update: Sadly no longer the case as all banks now charge at least $5 transaction fee, though Canadia offered by far the best exchange rate in branch.
There are countless horror stories about coach journeys from Hell in Asia so I’d researched intensely and concluded the best option, though most expensive, would be Giant Ibis or Mekong Express. By expensive I mean $14 from HCMC to Phnom Penh and $16 on to Siem Reap, all bookable on-line http://www.giantibis.com and http://catmekongexpress.com
Luckily the bus wasn’t full so, as a solo traveller, I had a pair of seats to spread out on. With earplugs in & music on I could settle back and take in the sights. We arrived at Mộc Bài border crossing after a couple of hours where the entry process proved pretty painless, I’d pre-arranged my visa on the Cambodian Embassy website http://www.embassyofcambodia.org/visa.html but the Visa On Arrival didn’t take any longer. We were soon hurtling through the Cambodian countryside on Highway One, first impressions were that the housing isn’t as ramshackled as I’d expected and there’s quite a bit of new manufacturing investment. Three hours later we were boarding the ferry at Neak Leung to cross the mighty Mekong River, 60km on we arrived in Phnom Penh where a short tuk-tuk ride soon had me checking in at Eureka Villas, situated in a quiet street behind the Royal Palace. The pleasure of a refreshing evening dip after hot, sweaty days in Hoi An had encouraged me to change my original booking, twice the price but totally worth it. The rest of the day was spent checking out the riverside bars & restaurants, what really hit home was the amount of rubbish strewn everywhere, pretty shocking!
Next morning I set off by tuk-tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, about an hours ride away. Although lacking formal education, my driver Piset was both articulate & knowledgeable, stopping occasionally en-route to point out places of interest and give some background info. Thankfully he’d given me a dust mask as the final part of the journey was down dirt tracks, where we ran the gauntlet of partying locals celebrating Khmer New Year. The crack was that you’d give them a few riels & they’d daub your cheeks with talcom powder. Hence it was with a ghostly pallor that we finally reached Choeung Ek, where you’re provided with a headset which relays the story of what happened in given locations around the site. This compliments the serenity that exists today while the tale is both harrowing & thought-provoking, it’s hard to imagine what would compel anyone to commit such atrocities. It is, however, understandable that ten years of the US dropping 800 tons of bombs a night on the countryside might provide all the propaganda Pol Pot needed to stir up the natives against city-dwelling collaborators, as he had portrayed them.
Piset was keen to point out some of the abuses going on today so on the way back into town we stopped at a vast tract of land which has been stolen from the impoverished locals by the government for development leaving them homeless and nowhere to grow their food. We then stopped at the sumptious palace the Prime Minister has built for himself, I cynically noted that the equally huge building behind the palace is the EU Delegation to Cambodia, it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude where the funding came from for both buildings. My final stop was Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (S21), which had originally been a high school but was used by Pol Pot to imprison & torture ‘enemies of the revolution’ before sending them to their death in the Killing Fields. Never was a dip in the pool more welcome and feel so cleansing than when I got back to the hotel.
My final day was spent exploring the city on foot checking out the landmarks before heading up to Wat Phnom for the Khmer New Year celebrations going on that day. Everybody was having a whale of a time but, I have to admit, I never had a clue what any of the games they were playing were about! I'd earlier visited the National Museum which, on hindsight, was pointless given that I'd be going on to Siem Reap where the artifacts are more abundant and all in situ. I'd been approached by a very articulate woman claiming to be a South American musician who'd like me to meet her friends to talk about England, which they'd be visiting later that year. All very plausible but this is actually a scam whereby they lure tourists into a fixed game of cards where they'd then lose all their money.
For food & drink I stayed around Sisowath Quay, which lines the Tonie Sap River with a wide variety of riverside restaurants & bars. Déjà Vu was good for a few late afternoon Angkor beers and the Fish Amok here was also delicious. I’d generally finish off each night with a few Jamesons & Ginger at the Riverside Bistro as they always had live music on and enough customers to create a good atmosphere.
17th - 20th April: Siem Reap
Accommodation: Golden Butterfly Villa - £15 per night, double room
In spite of having to do all the organising of his fathers funeral later that day, Piset turned up at 7:30am to take me to the bus for the seven hour journey to Siem Reap. He’d already been to the market to get all the food for the occasion and was going to work right up until an hour before, this would save using one of his three days annual holiday!?!?
Once again I’d struck lucky, having the front two seats of the coach to myself, so it was just a matter of get comfortable, plug in the music and take in the sights. Thankfully Giant Ibis have the best & most modern coaches of the lot, as they’re in the throes of widening & renewing Highway One between the two cities and someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided to do the whole road at the same time meaning 300 miles of hardbake red dust track. The benefit when completed will be a much quicker journey.
Much as I enjoyed the insight into Cambodian life the journey gives you, it was good to finally get to Siem Reap. From the posse of tuk-tuk drivers I chose Tom (actual name Tum), who not only delivered me to my hotel but persuaded me to use him for my trip to the temples the following morning. I don’t know why but I immediately felt a sense of enchantment on entering Golden Butterfly Villa, where I was greeted with a warm welcome from Chantou, who checked me in & provided local information over green tea & banana chips. My room was equally charming and, as usual, I quickly dumped the bags & set about exploring the area. I soon found the infamous Pub Street, which is a lot smaller than expected and, on first impressions, pretty underwhelming. I spent the rest of the day/night poodling around, capped off with a decidedly average meal at Red Piano before heading back to the hotel for an early-ish night. Ridiculously, given I'd already had two early starts and was being picked up at 5am, I decided to watch the 2½ hr long Killing Fields until midnight!?
You can imagine my surprise when, instead of the persistent Tum, I was greeted the next morning by a smiling Paul (actual name Phalit). It turned out to be a real result as not only does he speak good English but is also knowledgeable on the temples and very good-humoured. The entrance to Angkor Archaelogical Park is 3km from Siem Reap and we’d soon joined the masses to pay the $20 per day entry fee. From there it was straight to Angkor Wat, a further 3km on, for the globally-renowned view of the temple at sunrise. Thankfully I was early enough to secure a good spot as everybody was jostling for position so you had to stand firm, especially against the Chinese! As someone who is very much ‘culture-light’ I have to say that watching the sunrise and the subsequent stroll around the temple was totally awesome and, in itself, worth the visit to Cambodia. From there it was on to the biggest of them all - Angkor Thom, which incorporates a collection of temples including another must-see, Bayon, and The Terrace of the Elephants.
It was then time for a spot of breakfast, which gave me the chance to chat with Phalit and get an idea of how tough it is just to exist for most Cambodians. Basically, like parents the world over, they just want to provide a better future for their kids. Having no formal schooling himself, he realises that the only chance for his two children to emerge from poverty is through education. If you're planning a visit to Siem Reap and need a guide/driver I can't recommend him highly enough, contact can be made through his website Siem Reap Driver.
From here it was on to Ta Prohm, unique for the way in which the enormous trees have grown on top of the walls. As legend would have it, there are only two types, one with a golden bark and the other silver, because King Javayarman VII associated them with wealth. As interesting as it all was, by now I'd seen the three 'biggies' and my stamina was beginning to wain so I asked Phalit to head back towards town. Given that I assumed most visitors spent three days exploring the temples, I wondered if my five hours was some kind of record? Apparently not as he informed me that, while the Japanese and Chinese want to investigate every nook & cranny, most Europeans are ‘templed-out’ by lunchtime. A great morning but I was relieved to get back to the hotel for a siesta and my, by now much needed, complimentary massage. This set me up nicely for a pleasant, though uneventful, evening mainly spent eating & chatting at Nai Khmer Food Restaurant by the Old Market before finishing off with a few obligatory nightcaps back at the hotel.
Having satisfied my cultural needs, my last day in Siem Reap could be taken at a relaxed pace. A pleasant walk along the riverside brought me to the elegant FCC Restaurant, recommended by John Stewart so I thought I’d give it a go for brunch . . . . . . wow! I just wish I’d had every meal there, the food is fantastic! From here I carried on to a park by the Royal Palace where I was gobsmacked to find hundreds of fruit bats high in the trees, I watched, totally transfixed for the next hour. That evening I was back at FCC for another gorgeous meal while being entertained by a half-decent rock band performing from the roof of the bar, a great setting and a wonderful way to wrap up my visit to Siem Reap. Phalit was there, as arranged, for my transfer next morning, not before receiving a farewell as warm as the welcome from the wonderful staff of the hotel. Special people and a special place which is still very much in my thoughts.
20th - 24th April: Bangkok
Accommodation: Tara Place - £29 per night, double room
The unlikeliest thing happened at the airport when, while heading towards boarding, I bumped into old schoolmate Debbie Hurst (and hubby), who I’d only seen once since leaving school in 1976! The flight gave us the chance to catch up but, as they were en-route home, we went our separate ways on arrival in Bangkok.
UK passport holders qualify for 'visa exemption' in Thailand, meaning you get 30 days (airport) or 15 days (land border) if you're visiting as a tourist, you may be asked to produce documents to confirm your onward travel plans. Once through immigration first stop is an ATM, unfortunately there's a 150 or 180 Baht fee on all transactions so be sure to take the maximum withdrawal, usually 20,000 Baht, to keep fees to a minimum, doing this represents a fee of less than 1%.
Having decided to take a taxi to the hotel I made my way to Level 1, where you have to give your destination details at the Taxi Counter to get a receipt to pass on to your driver, a great system as it cuts out any translation issues. Although the advice is to insist on using the meter, the driver offered a reasonable set price of 500 Baht (£9) for the 45 minute journey so I went for that.
When I arrived the reception was pretty rowdy with an exciteable group of lads, I prayed they weren’t on the same floor as me! As it happened, after I’d quickly dropped off my bags, I got chatting with them & they turned out to be 12 ex-uni mates from Amsterdam who get together every four or five years for a two week holiday, the coolest thing for me is that only the organiser knows where they’re going! We headed out together for a first taste of the legendary Khao San Road, a magnet for all backpackers. After enjoying a few beers & roasted scorpions (not bad!) the Dutch lads then went on to a reservation at a sky bar leaving me to peruse the area further before ending up back at the same bar as it was now showing Premiership rugby, though I never got to watch much of it as I soon got chatting with Cairns couple, Ash & Lesley. We were later joined by a German girl travelling alone & a couple of lads from London, which ramped up the atmosphere & pace. After a few hours plans were being made to hit the clubs which was my cue to head for my bed, a good session & a cracking evening!
Next morning my aim was to get the train tickets for the next leg of my journey so set out with the intention of taking a bus to the station. These plans changed however when I saw the prison-like state of the buses and the pained expressions of all on board. I then decided to walk instead, not normally a problem except I hadn’t done my usual preps so needed a bit of map time to work out the route. In any other city in the world this wouldn’t be a problem either but not here! Up walks a thoroughly pleasant, well-presented local speaking excellent English and, seemingly, genuine. Now I fancy myself as being pretty switched on when it comes to travelling yet I still managed to let myself get scammed, what grates even more is that I knew the scam!!! Rather than go into the specifics, THIS ARTICLE details the most frequently used scams. The upshot for me is that I got suckered into taking the tuk-tuk which (conveniently) arrived to meet all my transport needs for the day for the princely sum of 40 Baht (80p). My foolishness meant I ended up paying about £25 over the top for my train tickets at an ‘official’ agency, not worth getting bent out of shape about, especially as it was still a heck of a lot cheaper than trains back home, but what really upset me is the feeling that you can’t trust any of the locals, something I hadn’t previously felt anywhere on this trip.
As I’d well & truly melted, I cut short my ‘tour’ to get back to the hotel for another shower before heading out to do laundry, get brunch and explore further on my own. The remainder of my time in Bangkok followed a similar routine of getting into sessions with travellers of various nationalities, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My attempts to do the main tourist attractions proved frustrating as there always seemed to be obstacles getting in the way and an abundance of 'helpful locals' looking to rip you off. I was surprised to discover that it's impossible to do a riverside walk and, even if you're prepared to join the masses visiting The Grand Palace, you need to be aware of the strict dress code (my fault entirely, I hasten to add!) Some of my 'wrong turns' proved amusing as I was to find myself in a Thai boxing gym and then a fish market where, judging by the bemused expressions, they don't get many westerners.
Not so funny is the after-effects of a tuk-tuk ride, mercifully there was a massage parlour next to my hotel so I was able to get my chakra's realigned for a fiver, brutal but very effective! Taxi's are definitely the way to go and they're just as cheap as the tuk-tuks, 150 Baht (£3) for the 20 minute journey to the station.
24th - 26th April: Hua Hin
Accommodation: Laila Food and Drink Guesthouse - £12 per night, double room
Even at 7am the humidity at the Hua Lamphong Station was stifling. I had some misguided urge to get a photo of the train arriving so left the comfort of the air-conditioned main hall to wait on the platform 10 minutes early, in no time I was absolutely sopping!
Normality was restored once on board in the spacious and reasonably comfortable 2nd class carriage. Given that the original intention was for this to be a train journey from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur, this was the only part remaining of the original plan. I’d decided to split the journey so an overnighter in Hua Hin, 3½ hours away, was included.
After the unpleasantness of Bangkok, it was a welcome relief that the countryside en-route is picturesque and the stations quaintly decorated and adorned with flowers, reminiscent of Littlehampton for those in the know. I knew the area I was staying in was a bit choice and the accommodation basic but I was just after a cheap bed for one night near the station so it was more than adequate. I just adopted a fixed smile and repetitive ‘no thank-you’ each time I ran the gauntlet of girly bars. I had to chuckle as I passed ‘The Ting-Tong Club’ after a comment left earlier by Notty on Facebook, hand-on-heart I can honestly say I'd never heard of a Ting-Tong before!
The beach area is altogether much nicer and very busy when the locals come out to gather in the evening. After grabbing some rays it was time for a few Tigers and a spot of people watching in one of the beach bars, then a bite to eat at the Saeng Thai Seafood pier restaurant Rick Stein had featured in a TV series, and bloody delicious it was to, though my bravado in asking for my Tom Yum Goong spicy numbed the mouth and made the eyes water!
As the next day was ANZACS Day I was desperately trying to find a bar which might be showing the traditional ‘Collingwood v Essendon’ match, thankfully I stopped at the right café for my full English breakfast to be directed to El Murphy’s Irish Pub in time for kick-off, so began a 7 hour session on the Stowford Press, firstly while watching the match and then celebrating a fine Pies win. A real bonus to find and even better at £3.50 a pint, just what I needed before my sleeper train! A trip to Burger King for a whopper meal was in order as a soberer, a tad heathen but it did the trick!
Unfortunately, as is usual in Thailand, the train was 1½ hours late and the humidity unrelenting, even at midnight, so I was well & truly ready for my top bunk, very comfy it was to as I was rocked to sleep by the gentle lilt of the train as it slowly made its way to Surat Thani.
26th - 29th April: Khao Sok National Park
Accommodation: Palmview Resort - £15 per night, double room
I’d read all manner of horror stories about the touts on arrival at Surat Thani but, apart from resisting the usual porters trying to carry your bags, had little problem as I was directed by a steward to the bus company for my trip to Khao Sok National Park. After booking my seat on the minibus, 250 Baht (£5) for the 1½ hour journey, there was time to grab some brekkie and freshen up before departure. I bunged the driver an extra 150 Baht for dropping me off at the resort, which was a real bonus.
I was greeted by the delightful Mama, who sat me down with a bottle of water and plate of fruit for a little introductory chat before getting her neice to show me to my quaint & homely bungalow. After settling in I returned to meet her son Kang, who runs the place and produced a local guide book & waterproof backpack as soon as I mentioned hiking plus a torch for negotiating the forest track at night, he covered all the bases and nothing was too much trouble.
A peruse of the nearby village confirmed there’s not much in the way of nightlife but what started as a passing conversation with an American having a beer outside the convenience store turned into a bit of a session. By the time we’d finished it was dark and the only place open for food was Pipino Restaurant where the pizza was good so it did the job. From that there was nothing left to do but climb inside the mosquito net in my abode to watch a movie on the tablet.
Next morning I set off to the nearby National Park (entry 200 Baht) for a bit of a hike, the first 3km was easy, well defined track and it was amusing to have a variety of lizards scampering about your feet while taking in the striking surroundings. A crack of branches overhead revealed a small group of long-tailed macaques looking down at me, awesome!
From the café at the 3km point the hike got more off-piste so progress slowed until I came upon Bang Neab Lam Waterfall. As I’d by now used half my water I knew I couldn’t go any further, luckily there was a beautiful, mozzy-free pool so I wasted no time getting in to have a good cool off, however I’d foolhardily laid out my clothes on some bushes in the hope they’d dry out, big mistake!!! After about an hour I came out refreshed to find them covered in bees, thankfully I quickly worked out they weren’t stingers but that didn’t make them any easier to get rid of and the effort to get my clothes bee-free meant I was totally drained as I wearily and, once again, sweatily set off on the return hike. Thank God it was only a mile to the café as my tank, and water, was empty when I got there and thirstily necked down a litre of water and can of Sprite. By the time I got back to Palmview I’d done another 1½ litres and a couple of ice-creams such was the dehydration.
A shower and short nap helped the return to normality and the realisation that the trip I’d arranged for the following day might be more than my depleted energy levels could manage so I traded it in for an elephant trek which, to be frank, is a ‘once done no need to repeat’ experience. On belatedly reading the guide Kang had provided, I discovered my clothes had been invaded by ‘sweat bees’ who, as the name suggests, crave the sweat of which I’d provided an infinite supply, in future I’ll pack a change of clothes!
The rest of my time was spent enjoying the peace, quiet & beautiful surroundings of the resort before travelling on to Phuket.
29th April - 2nd May: Nai Yang Beach, Phuket
Accommodation: Seapines Villa Liberg - £30 per night, double room
A lot of what I’d read about the main resorts in Phuket didn’t particularly attract me so I opted for Nai Yang Beach as it seemed to be beautiful & quiet while having enough to occupy me for three days, and so it proved. There was a tinge of sadness to be leaving Palm View and there were lots of hugs all round as they dropped me off after breakfast for the 3½hr transfer I’d arranged through Kang (450 baht, £9) En-route we picked up travellers from India, Germany, France & Spain who, luckily, all spoke English so the usual travel & cultural experiences were shared. To avoid a long walk from the drop-off point, I again bunged the driver 150 baht to drop me at the door of my accommodation, a small price to pay.
I was soon checked into my delightful room by owner Pottana who, along with her staff, worked continuously to keep the place absolutely spotless. A quick once-over revealed a lovely pool which I’d happily cool off in each evening. Travelling can be thirsty work so I was soon making my way down the dirt track to the beach to take in some rays and find a nice spot for a few beers, Phen’s Restaurant Bar, which was located right on the beach at the end of the track, ticked all my boxes. As it transpired the food at Phen’s was also tremendous and I ended up eating there every night. I’ve since learnt that they’ve relocated further along the beach but, thankfully, you still get to enjoy the most sublime sunsets imagineable.
My days & nights here involved no more than a bit of sunbathing & swimming interspersed with food, drink and the occasional conversation with fellow travellers, wonderful! Although the airport is only 2km away there was barely any aircraft noise as the flight path is in the opposite direction. On checking out, Pottana even suggested I keep the room an extra hour until I actually needed to leave, this meant I could fit in one last swim before taking the taxi to the airport from the, conveniently located, company next door.
2nd - 5th May: Georgetown, Penang
Accommodation: Heliconia Hotel - £23 per night, double room
The 1¼hr Firefly flight delivered me to the modern airport about 16km outside Georgetown. Thankfully we Brits get visa exemption in Malaysia so I was quickly through immigration. More good news is that there’s no withdrawal charge levied at the ATM so I was soon at the taxi desk with a fistful of ringgits. On parting with 45MYR (£6.50) I was soon in the taxi of, possibly, the jolliest driver I’ve ever met. Perhaps unkindly, I dubbed him ‘Mr Hairy Ears’ as they were, without doubt, the hairiest ears I’ve ever seen!
As it was rush hour, progress was slow but this provided an opportunity to learn how the island had developed since being a British, then Australian, air force domain. Mr H-E had worked as a bus driver for the RAAF, of whom a kindly Flight Sergeant taught him one word of English a day, something he is still incredibly grateful for. By the time we arrived at my hotel I’d learnt about the education system and the ever-increasing Chinese immigrant population, every sentence finished with a chuckle.
I’d soon checked in and dropped my bags off in my modern, functional room and was heading out for the evening armed with a local food guide, which proved exceedingly handy. First thing I noticed was the 2’ deep open storm drains running kerbside, better keep the wits sharp to that danger when wobbling home! Wandering down the nearby main drag, Jalan Penang, I was drawn to Java Restoran, mainly due to the old adage that if a place is busy with locals it must be good, and so it proved to be with a lovely selection from the buffet washed down by a tasty smoothie, all for under a fiver! From there it was across the road to Soho Bar, which turned out to be much better than the name suggests so I spent the rest of the night there chatting with, mainly, Aussie ex-servicemen on a regular pilgrimage to the old colony.
The next morning it was time to do some tourist stuff, there’s a trail of street art you can follow but I soon gave up on that and headed for Fort Cornwallis, which turned out to be pretty underwhelming. From there I took in a few of the colonial buildings in the vicinity before settling down at Kashmir Restaurant in Jalan Penang as it was sweltering and I really needed a beer. The bonus was that there was a beautiful, humidity defying, breeze so one beer became three and I was tucking into a delicious Indian feast for brunch. That evening I enjoyed another foodie-fest in the Red Garden Food Paradise, where you had the choice of over 20 hawker stalls selling every food imagineable. Amongst other dishes, I had a fantastic Assam Laksa, which is a locally renowned fish soup, absolutely delicious if you like strong flavours. From there I, once again, saw out the night in Soho Bar.
Seeking more than what Georgetown might have to offer, I set off by bus (40p) next morning to Kek Lok Si Temple, situated in Air Itam. From the bus stop it wasn't exactly obvious where to go and, after getting chatting with an equally confused young Jade from Salisbury, we decided to stick together so at least if we got lost it wouldn’t be alone. Even on working out the way there’s an interminable climb to the temple through a gauntlet of market stalls and pushy traders to endure. The temple itself is pretty impressive and definitely worth the effort, one of the most interesting I’d seen on my trip. From there we decided to also do Penang Hill so walked the mile or so to the cable car (30MYR) and were soon taking in the hazy panoramic views of Georgetown. A siesta beckoned on wearily getting back to town then it was out for a final night in town, taking in the historically renowned Hong Kong Bar, where I bumped into the Aussie boys again. Sticking with what I knew to be good, from there it was another meal at Red Garden and a final few beers at Soho.
5th - 8th May: Kuala Lumpur
Accommodation: Premiera Hotel - £37 per night, twin room
The cheap & cheerful (£20) Air Asia flight only took an hour to deliver me to, soon to be defunct, KLIA 2. In some ways it’s a shame it’s going because it’s so small there’s very little walking involved. From there it was another hour by taxi (65MYR/£9) to my hotel, situated in the Little India area. My usual routine of heading straight out suffered a slight delay as the mother-of-all storms rolled in for the daily deluge. Half an hour later it was all over, the skies had cleared and the pavements had virtually dried in minutes. My spacious room on the 29th floor certainly gave a great view of proceedings though, annoyingly for what's essentially a business hotel, I was never able to get wi-fi in my room and my relationship with the reception staff was a tad fraught.
I decided to head for Petronas Towers so set off with map in hand. Though a lot further to walk than expected it was totally worth it as they’re stunning. In truth I’m no photographer but I reckon the pics I got of them are my best ever and will struggle to equal. With hunger pangs kicking in it was time to find a restaurant so I headed to nearby Jalan P Ramlee, which I knew had a few bars & restaurants. Once there I chose the relative calm of Trattoria Cucina where I enjoyed a very nice, if somewhat overpriced meal. I’d already decided the noisy disco-bars in the area weren’t for me that night so headed back to the hotel, stopping at the Hard Rock Café for a few nightcaps on the way.
Next morning I set out to explore the nearby landmarks of Merdeka Square and Chinatown, I was then going to do KL Tower but changed my mind when I got there as, to be honest, my own hotel had a perfectly adequate panoramic view of the city. A couple of bits of good fortune then happened to change my day, firstly I stumbled upon Pavilion mall with its abundance of bars & eateries, then I got chatting with a couple of very entertaining ladies, Ginny (Kiwi) & Judy (Aussie), with whom I had a cracking afternoon. I have to admit that when we went our separate ways, for the only time in my 5½ week trip, I felt very flat and lacking in enthusiasm to do much else so saw out the night back at my hotel, excepting a visit to the local Indian buffet for a bit of supper.
As my poor old legs were letting me know how many miles I’d tramped, I decided to give the Monorail a go on the my final day of my trip, why didn’t I use it sooner?!?! Three stops & 40 pence later I was back at Pavilion for a bit of brekkie, some mindless window shopping, more food & drink and a fair bit of people watching. There was still time to get propositoned by a Vietnamese ‘lady’, “You not old, you veh handsome!” made me chuckle. An early night beckoned as the long journey home, via Hong Kong, would begin very early next morning, it had all been terrific fun!