Category : South-East Asia

Nightlife in Phuket

We went out in three different places on the island of Phuket – here’s what we found at each of them:

Karon – Quiet

As for nightlife – there isn’t any in Karon. There are a few bars but it is difficult to tell which are the Go-Go bars and which are legit as both have about 3 young Thai waitresses per customer (the pole behind the bar is the giveaway). One night we tried South Karon because during the day Richard had seen a whole street of bars – hurrah – unfortunately he didn’t have his contact lenses in and when we went back in the evening we realised they were all Go-Go bars, names like ‘The Lady Bar’ should have given it away. North Karon near the Golden Sand Inn has a few bars but they have been pretty quiet. One night 6 of us (Jacqui, Sue, Keelly and Lee had a whole bar pretty much to ourselves so we could pick the music and dance to our hearts content. It was the last night Keelly and Lee could get pissed as they were off to Australia a couple of days later and had a really long flight to look forward to and a hangover wouldn’t have helped. We have had a few good nights out in Karon and the bars tend to play good music and have Jenga, Line-up 4 (Connect 4), free pool and Jackpot (a no brainer dice game) to keep you amused – but the company makes it, it is nice to meet people and hear their stories, whether they are people on a 2 week holiday, 6 month travellers or people who liked it so much they stayed (usually marrying a Thai woman first – non Thai’s can’t buy property). Often it was very quiet although Christmas and New Year have been a bit busier but the people in the bars say that it is so much quieter than usual (some have said there are only half or a third of the tourists they normally get at this time of year).

Kata – Medium

There are two bits to Kata: Kata Centre and Kata South (where we are staying). Kata Centre is where most of the dive shops are and a lot of cheap accommodation so there are some cool bars which actually have some ambience (rare around here). We’ve had a couple of good nights out there. The best bar was Dan Kwain which does great cocktails, has a great DJ, funky decor and goldfish bowls for tables. We had a fab night out there with Sue, Jacqui, Tony, Anya and Chantelle where before we knew it it was 1am and we only went for a Thursday night quiet drink. Kata South caters more for the big hotels nearby and so is full of restaurants. There are a few bars where you can have a good game of pool but it is pretty quiet.

Patong – Full on

Just up the coast from Karon is Patong. It wouldn’t be a nice place to stay as it is too manic but it is a good place to go for a kicking Saturday night out. We tended to go to the bars up the Bang-La Road (the less dodgy ones!) which play good music and you can see the world go by and envy the fabulous ball gowns and party dresses the transexuals wear. Then for dancing we went to Irish pubs – either Molly Malones or Scruffy Murphys, both had live bands every night and we would drink Carlsberg, Vodka and Kamikazes, play drinking games (brilliant idea to play spoof Jacqui! – how would we have got completely hammered every night otherwise?) and dance until we fell into our Tuk-Tuks home sometime in the early hours. This is where we spent Christmas Eve and New Year and a few other nights.


Apr 19 – 24

First impressions

Arriving on the bus from Malasia suddenly we were in a different world, a clinical world like an architect’s model of a town before it gets dirty and broken. It was so perfect, almost too perfect and with rules for everything. It was wonderful for us as tourists to be in such a well-run city but I think it might be harder to live with the oppressive rules and feeling of surveilence. About ten different rules just for catching a taxi but taxi’s here are different to anywhere we’ve ever been in the world – they don’t try to rip you off!!!! Just one thing makes being in Singapore hard work and that is the humidity – it is almost unbearable and you jump from aircon taxis to shopping centres trying to escape the heat.

Second impressions

Pete, Jo and James at the flat

We never want to leave….. For the first time in five months we are staying in a real home. My godmother’s son, James, is doing a PhD on coral populations off Singapore and very, very kindly (we can’t thank you enough!) offered us a place to stay. His flatmates, Pete and Claudio, also deserve a mention for pretending two people they’d never met before hadn’t completely taken over their living room and made a mess of it for five days. Although I think that Pete was happy to use us as a good excuse to extend his coffee breaks while in the last stages of writing up his PhD (should be finished now? – Good luck Pete and Congrats on the wedding). I can’t tell you how nice it was to be immersed in a home where we could make boiled eggs and toast and sit on a sofa and chat to interesting, normal(?) people (who weren’t backpacking). Heaven.

So what does Singapore have to offer?

James, Amanda and Richard, Boat Quay Lots. We didn’t do half of the things we would have liked to have done there, we just didn’t have time. Of course there is wonderful shopping and great restaurants and bars to hang out in, although as in Hong Kong drinks are expensive. We especially liked the Boat Quay and Clarke Quay where you can have a meal overlooking the water, watching the world go by and get a great view of the impressive and beautifully lit skyscrapers beyond the water. They are a bit touristy but, hey, that’s what we are. One of the bars we tried was Harry’s Bar because it was the bar Nick Leeson frequented. We really enjoyed doing a couple of non-touristy things. We went out with James on the University boat so that he could go diving to collect some more data for his research. We got to see the decadent yachts in the harbour and then the ugly oil refinery, a very industrial port. We tried to go snorkelling but the current was so strong we kept floating away so we gave up and chilled on the boat. The other was going for dinner and then bowling with James and Li-Yeng (we were all pretty awful at bowling but it was great to get to know them).

Raffles Hotel

The Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

The other must do in Singapore is to drink a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel and we knew we were following in important footsteps (that’s Jacqui and Sue’s two months earlier). Being the sophisticated people that we are we went into the wrong entrance! and had to be pointed back out of the main lobby and over to The Long Bar. It meant that we got to walk right through the grounds of the hotel which is a massive complex and really beautiful. We had to have a Singapore Sling but we just had one because it was really sweet and cost a massive $16sing (over £6). I was disappointed because, as you can see from the picture, the Singapore Sling is mass produced – the main mixture is actually on tap and they make up jugs and jugs of the stuff – not a very special experience. It’s much better to have one of the other cocktails which are made on the spot and very nice. The best thing was the peanuts. An everlasting supply of monkey nuts but no where to put the shells apart from the floor which was covered with them. One customer was putting the shells into the ashtray so the barman picked the ashtray up and deftly threw the contents over the bar onto the floor. When in Rome….

Singapore Zoo and Night Safari

Richard - oopps, sorry I meant Spider Monkey, Singapore Zoo Lions, Singapore Zoo Flamingos, Night Safari

Singapore has the best zoo I’ve ever been to. I know it is still a zoo but the animals do have some room. Deer and monkeys and the birds are free to roam around, or jump and swing or fly but the more dangerous animals, like lions are in enclosures which have camoflagued barriers so that you can’t tell that the animals are confined. The barriers are trenches sometimes filled with water. This spider monkey was trying to read the info about himself! The picture of the flamingos was taken with nightvision at the Singapore Night Safari. This was great, wondering around paths in the dark and suddenly seeing bright eyes in the darkness ahead of you – lions, giraffes, antelope. In one area we walked through bats were flying around our heads – spooky.

Finally we dragged ourselves out of the boys sofa and jumped on a plane to Bali for a few weeks on the beach before our final destination – Australia.


Apr 7 – 19

As soon as we entered Malaysia it started raining which was interesting for us because it was the first time we’d seen rain in over three months. It was obvious from the moment we crossed the border that this was a different to Thailand. The vegetation was lusher, there were far fewer wooden huts and there were housing estates which we hadn’t seen anywhere before, the roads were better and people were wearing helmets on their motorbikes which they hardly ever do in Thailand, the driving was safer (our taxi driver was by far the fastest on the road) and the vehicles were more modern with far more cars and vans rather than ramshackle trucks and vehicles which had been cobbled together by the owner.


View from Merchant Hotel, Penang Being hardened travellers we arrived in Penang at 8.30pm on a rainy night with no accommodation booked and no local currency. When we started travelling we were quite apprehensive about crossing borders and finding a room for the night in a new country and we always got a bit of local currency before we arrived in a country, but we are getting more and more blasé as we realise that you can always find a room no matter what time of night you arrive and that if there aren’t any cash machines in a country then dollars will be an accepted currency, officially or unofficially. When we left our hotel in Koh Samui at 6am we didn’t even know if we would make it to Malaysia or whether we would have to spend the night in Hat Yai which is the nearest big town in Thailand to Malaysia. We had hoped to book an overnight train straight through from Thailand to Penang but Thai trains are often booked up days in advance and we were travelling just before Songkram (Thai New Year, April 12) so the trains were fully booked with people travelling to visit their families for the holiday. We ended up with a bus ticket to Hat Yai and when we were dropped off in Hat Yai we spoke to three girls who were going all the way to Penang and asked them how they were getting there. They were taking a minibus and we got in a tuk-tuk with them to the tour office to see if we could come too. But we bottled out when we saw that the tour office is one mentioned in Lonely Planet for taking people’s passports from them and then demanding money before they’d give it back. Anyway, the minibus was going to be full of people and a large amount of luggage so it would have been an uncomfortable five hour journey. We hopped back into the tuk-tuk and asked them to take us to Cathay Tours where they were really friendly and efficient, organising a taxi for us so for the first time we crossed an international border in a taxi and it was so much quicker than doing it by bus.

First impressions of Penang weren’t good. We crossed from the mainland to the island on the ferry and were dropped in Chinatown and it was dirty. The first thing that happened when we put out big rucksacs down was that cockroaches ran all over them – yuk. A bit later we saw some other animals that we’re not keen on – RATS. After looking at a few dingy places we ended up in the nice, clean Merchant Hotel which we saw the next day had a great ocean view. The next day we met up with Amanda who we’d met in Vietnam but hadn’t seen for a couple of months. She had just spent a week relaxing on a nice quiet island off the east coast of Malaysia but had come back to Penang to travel down the west coast with us. We found a pub for dinner and to catch up and, seriously, for the first time since we came away it felt like we could be at home. The Soho pub was just like an English pub of the Wetherspoons variety with good pub grub. It just really looked the part and if it wasn’t for not needing to stand at the bar to order a drink (nearly everywhere in Asia waiters take your drinks orders so you never need to get out of your seat) it would have been perfect. We sat around chatting and drinking pints and it felt just like being in Wetherspoons in Croydon! Oh memories! The only difference was that this place was more expensive.

We did a bit of shopping and a bit of sightseeing in Penang, there wasn’t a lot to see. There are some big hotels down by the beach so maybe it is a better place for a beach holiday. We spent three nights in Penang and then hired a car and left on Wednesday 10th to visit the Cameron and Genting Highlands before ending up in Kuala Lumpur on Friday night.

Cameron Highlands

Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands

To get back to the mainland from Penang we went over the longest bridge in SE Asia which is 8km. It was nice to have our own transport again and I think we might have been sick if we’d taken a bus to the Cameron Highlands. We felt sick in the car for the last 60km of our journey up into the Highlands where the roads were so windy that it took one and a half hours. But the scenery was beautiful. The lush green tea plantations where the hedges make lovely patterns over the hills and the way the light falls on them. On the way we stopped for lunch at a traditional (modern) English Country Pub called The Lakehouse Hotel which was built to look like an old Tudor house and it was done very well. We sat in the lounge and drank tea and had a sandwich and it was very peaceful and pleasant. The area is dotted with these lovely old looking pubs. It’s so peaceful in the Cameron Highlands, just beautiful scenery, cute little villages to potter around and wonderful tea.

We stayed at The Cameron Holiday Inn in Tanah Rata. I don’t think it’s part of the Holiday Inn chain (as it only cost £5 a room and there was no ensuite) but it was a sweet little guesthouse with a nice communal area and pretty grounds. The next day we drove around and visited Cactus Valley which was like a cactus theme park. Not terribly exciting but it was impressive to see so many cactii. Richard nearly impalled himself after tripping up next to a cluster of very spiky cactii but luckily there was a well-placed beam which he caught hold of. Second stop was a strawberry farm where the strawberries are cultivated at waist level so it’s not backbreaking to harvest them unlike at home. We bought a few punnets for afternoon tea. We stopped for a pot of tea at Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation where we sat in the open air drinking the best tea I’ve ever tried and looking at the fantastic view of the tea plantation. When we finally drained every last drop from the teapot we dragged ourselves away to visit Boh Tea Estate, the biggest tea producer in Malaysia where we had a tour of the factory. On the way we passed fields and fields of tea and the workers village which is on site. We saw some tea pickers on their way home but we didn’t see any at work because they pick early in the morning and it was lunchtime by this point. We sat through an old but interesting promotional video which included a few minutes on how to make the perfect pot of tea and then we went around the factory which seemed amazingly small with very few staff considering the amount of tea Boh produce. Most of the leaves are sorted mechanically but the leaves for the best tea are still sorted by hand. The smell in the factory was fantastic, a combination of freshly mown grass, rich and damp, and very strong tea. After yet more cups of tea and a much needed toilet break we headed for the Genting Highlands.

Genting Highlands

Outdoor Theme Park, Genting Highlands Amanda and Richard, Genting Highlands

You couldn’t imagine a greater contrast than the Cameron and Genting Highlands. The Cameron Highlands are peaceful and reminisant of a nice part of the English Countryside with little hamlets nestled in beautiful countryside. It is approached slowly along very windy roads and has a very gentle feel about it. The Genting Highlands is completely different. A big, modern theme park built at the top of a 2000m mountain geared towards the relatively well-off people in Kuala Lumpur as a weekend getaway. The road up to it is new and very steep but you can get a much faster ride than you can going up to the Cameron Highlands and that fast ride just about sums up what a visit to Genting is going to be about. It’s fast and it’s impressive. On the way up you can see the imposing theme park on top of the mountain – a castle in the sky. The view from our hotel room was vertigo-inducing, a steep drop off from the window down to the mountains – on top of the world. You might think that this isn’t typically Malaysian and that you can go to a theme park anywhere but the point is it’s fun and actually this is where the middle class Malaysian’s go for a family day out or a night at the Casino, we hardly saw any tourists at all. That night Richard and I braved the Casino and played the one-armed bandits for an hour. We made a lot of money, well you’d think we had the amount of coins we won but in fact we’d only made a pound on top of what we started with. Richard dragged me away before I could lose our amazing winnings!

We spent the whole of Friday at the theme park. First Richard had a go on the Sky Venture which is like sky diving. You lie on a jet of air which can have a speed of up to 197km/hr and the air bellows in your jumpsuit lifting you so that you are floating. You need a helmet, earplugs and goggles because it is very noisy and powerful. The instructors made it look easy, flying about, climbing the walls like spiderman but the first go you flounder about. Then, we went on all the ourdoor rides: the corkscrew; the log flume; the bumper boats; the space shot (a ride which shoots you vertically up into the air very fast but which, if you haven’t got your eyes screwed tightly shut (Amanda!), gives you a fantastic view for miles over the park and mountains and possibly all the way to Kuala Lumpur). After all the thrills we could handle Richard went back for a second go on the Sky Venture and I decided I couldn’t bottle out so gave it a go and it was as difficult as it looked. Although I could move my body when I tried I was so gob-smacked by the strength of the air that most of the time I felt that I couldn’t move and lay there like a lead weight. Once you get in the right position you know because the air grabs you and you can feel the power and stability of it but that only happened a couple of times on my go. Richard got it a bit more on his second go.

Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

The image of KL, the Petronas Twin Towers, unfortunately we could only get a good picture of them from another tall building and that was looking sideways on so that you can’t see the two towers very well. We tried to go up the Twin Towers but you can only go up to the bridge that spans them about halfway up and there are only limited numbers allowed up each day and we missed it. But, we took this picture from the top of the tallest tower in KL, the Menara Communications Tower which had stunning views over KL and over to the mountains.

We stayed in KL’s Chinatown so Amanda and I tried some great Chinese food but one night Richard and I went to a Malaysian Chinese run restaurant that served good British food. It was a kind of posh caf’. Good, hearty steaks, pies and mash at good prices but dirty tablecloths and the steam from the cooking was quite stiffling in the restaurant. For those of you that have seen the sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ this was where Malaysian Chinese people ‘Go for an English’.

One very hot day we went to the very peaceful KL Lake Gardens where the only other people in the park were courting couples. They were all muslim and one very daring girl took off her head scarf, let her hair down and let her boyfriend touch her neck. When we left we saw a family of monkeys cross the road and saunter past us nonchalantly.

Another day we hired a car and drove about 70km to Kuala Selangor. We spent a couple of hours in a nature park sitting in a wooden hut so that the birdlife and animals weren’t disturbed by us and we saw a lot of herons and geese flying over the lake and some smaller birds with long thin beaks and some wild crab-eating maque monkeys and plantain squirrels. The reason we’d come to Kuala Selangor wasn’t for the nature park though but for the nightlife. Every evening after dark the ‘kelip-kelip’ light up the bushes by the river. We travelled slowly down the river in a silent motored boat so we didn’t disturb the fireflies that flicker as they put on their mating show making the whole effect exactly like looking at hundreds of flashing Christmas Trees. This is apparently only one of two places where fireflies are in the wild in the world and it was quite an experience.


I can’t say much about Melaka apart from commenting on the guesthouse room we were staying in which was very nice. I was ill the whole time we were there but Richard and Amanda found the shopping centres a welcome escape from the heat and humidity. Amanda managed to do a little bit of sightseeing taking in a few of the historic buildings in this former Portugese port which, I’m sure has a lot of character. In fact, we met one of the local characters on the way out of Melaka. Our taxi driver, Albert, was a frustrated stand-up comedian so he subjected us to his full routine on the way to the bus station. It started with impressions of him in his taxi talking to tourists of different nationalities and he would ask them a question and then reply in their language, perfect, English, French, German and Japanese. Then he went into his baby impressions!

Albert dropped us off and we got on the bus to Singapore

Southern Thailand

Mar 24 – Apr 7

One last stop in Bangkok first….

Same, same but different as last time in Bangkok – a movie (A Beautiful Mind), a burger (Henry J Beans), a bit of shopping and a little bit of sightseeing. We just spent two nights in Bangkok this time and then said goodbye knowing we probably wouldn’t be back for a very long time.

Grand Palace, Bangkok The Grand Palace, Bangkok

On the way to the Grand Palace we met with another scamster. A nice respectable looking middle-aged man stopped us and asked if we were going to the Grand Palace. He said that it was closed for the morning because it is a Buddhist Holy Day and the monks were praying (It sounded plausible as we knew some things shut for Buddhist Holy Days). He said that if we had a map he would suggest some other nice temples we could see this morning and then we could go back to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew which is in the Palace grounds after 1.30pm. We tried to say that we would go and have a look anyway but he was insistent pointing temples out on the map and writing EXPORT where we could get ornaments cheaply (this was the first time we really felt suspicious). He then asked if we knew about the Tuk-Tuk’s, he said the ones with yellow number plates weren’t official but the white ones were and the yellow ones would try and charge 100Baht for a trip around the places he had mentioned but that it should only cost 70Baht. Do we speak Thai? No, in that case he would help us, ah, look there is a Tuk-Tuk now…. I said that we would try another temple, Wat Pho, near the Grand Palace instead but he said that was closed too but all other ones were open, just a Tuk-Tuk ride away!! Of course, it was all open. We went to Wat Pho to see the 46 metre golden reclining buddha with mother of pearl feet and then went to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. The Grand Palace complex was stunning. You can’t actually go into the Palace because it is still used but it was impressive to walk around and we went into Wat Phra Kaew and saw the Emerald Buddha. There are beautiful paintings on the walls all around and there is also a model of Angkor Wat.

Koh Tao

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

After a hard journey on the night bus to Chumphon and an early morning ferry we arrived hot and tired on Koh Tao. We stayed in a wooden hut on Sairee beach which had electricity from 6pm until 6am but no flush toilet or aircon and it was so hot during the day that you couldn’t go into the room. To make up for not being able to go into your room during the day it did have the most lovely porch with a chair, table and triangular cushion which was really comfortable and relaxing. We could just about see the sea from the porch, a lovely view.

We did have a bit of trouble getting a room in the first place, partly because we are fussy and wanted a toilet and aircon without having to hand over an arm and a leg – no joy there and also because Koh Tao is popular with divers (because of the good visibility in the water and the abundance of fish). So, there are lots of dive schools and lots of the guesthouses and hotels on the island won’t let non-divers stay. Richard asked one place if they had a room and the guy said yes and then said, ‘Are you diving?’, Richard said no and the guy said, ‘Oh, sorry we’re full’. Fair enough they can take who they want but don’t lie about it. But one advantage of being a diving island is that the beautiful beaches with powder white sand are usually empty as everyone else is underwater during the day. And, of course, there are beautiful sunsets.

One day we took a day trip to Nang Yuan which is tripartite, made up of three islands with three beaches that meet in the middle. There was great snorkelling here, lots of shoals of fish and lots of different species, big multi-coloured fluorescent fish, small neon blue fish, big white fish, small see-through fish, medium yellow, white and black stripy fish…..don’t know the names which is a shame.

Koh Phangan

Haad Rin Beach, Koh Phangan Long boat, Koh Phangan Evening on the beach, Koh Phangan

We missed the notorious Koh Phangan Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach but they were still clearing up the beach when we arrived three days later. Koh Phangan is very different to Koh Tao, it has the same beautiful beaches but it is much busier and more developed. It has some lovely restaurants on the beach where we dug our feet into the sand while eating freshly caught fish (barracuda, tuna, snapper, shark…) for about £1.50. There are a lot of bars on the beach and you can lie on a mat on the sand, watch the waves, look at the stars, watch the moonrise and watch the fire jugglers on the beach all night. You can’t hear the sea very well in the evening because all the bars blare out very loud house music. Didn’t realise I was that old but I actually found it quite painful and we had to sit at the edges of bars as far away from the speakers as possible. We took a boat trip up the coast stopping at different beaches and for snorkelling one day but apart from that we chilled on the beach for the five days we were there.

Koh Samui

We only stayed in Koh Samui for three days in a nice place called the Samui Coral Resort which was right on the beach and had it’s own pool and restaurant. We stayed on Chaweng Beach which is where all the package holiday tourists stay and is the busiest beach on the island. Richard persuaded me to get on the back of a jet-ski with him. It was an interesting half an hour and, yes, we did fall off but managed to drag ourselves back on (only to fall off straight away – we did get back on and stable before the guys renting out the jet-ski came to rescue us). We spent a fun half an hour at the Shooting Range figuring that it’s something you can’t do at home anymore. We had five bullets each on three different guns: a .22, a .45 and, the biggy, a heavy shotgun. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be and we managed to hit the target everytime – the bullseye was mine! We shot at metal people shaped targets with the shotgun and watermelons which exploded when we hit them but probably not as much as the cows you can, supposedly, shoot in Cambodia if you have enough dollars.

On the night before we left Koh Samui I managed to get Richard to have his first Thai massage, it was his last chance to get one. We went into one of the many massage shops in Koh Samui and both had a neck, shoulder and back massage for half an hour for £2.50 each. It wasn’t as scary as the one I had in Vietnam but it was still very relaxing. There are so many massage shops in Thailand and most aren’t at all sleazy as some people might imagine just cheap and very relaxing.

Next stop Malaysia


Mar 10 – 23

When we first decided we were going to visit Laos I remembered that Dad had a friend who was from Laos, Kay, who had married an old school friend of Dad’s, David. I remember going to their house quite a few times when I was under 10 years old and playing with their kids, Kevin and Nicky, or watching fascinated as they played Mah Jong for hours on end (no honestly, I was fascinated, it’s a great game). I asked Dad if he could see if they had any suggestions on where to go in Laos and they recommended Luang Prabang and also said that they had family living in Vientiane. We got in touch with Sally and Anne, Kay’s nieces and they gave us some more info on Laos and when we got to Vientiane we were lucky enough to meet up with them.

Luang Prabang

When we got to Luang Prabang I set off to find us somewhere to stay, leaving Richard with the bags in a cafe. We take it in turns to go hunting so that one of us can mind the bags rather than both carrying them around. We’ve been surprised by just how many people lug their bags around while looking for somewhere to stay. If you are travelling on your own it can be difficult to leave your bag on it’s own but we often see couples or two, three, four or more people all humping their heavy backpacks with them as they walk in the heat around lots of guesthouses. We figured in the end that people have different requirements or that they don’t trust each other to get something decent. To some people money is the important factor and they will stay in a pretty grotty place if it only costs a few dollars a night whereas other people would rather pay 7 or 8 dollars and stay somewhere with their own bathroom and hot water.

Looking around I found that the room rates were three or four times the price quoted in Lonely Planet (2002 edition). Rooms quoted as 3 or 4 dollars were all $12! but eventually I found somewhere cheaper (Lao Irish Guesthouse), $7 for a massive room in an old wooden house (a listed building) which had it’s own bathroom. The room was ramshackle but full of character with old pictures, swords, big chests and boar skulls dotted around it – a bit spooky. Kingsmill, who ran the guesthouse with his wife Sone, later told us that all the guesthouse owners had put up their rates two months ago – they’d all agreed to do it – because they could and people would pay it. He’d followed but was still cheaper than the others.

Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a small place nestled between two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong River (the main river running through Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam). You can see the impressive mountains that surround it in the distance. It is hard to believe that this is one of the biggest cities in Laos, it is only just starting to develop in response to tourism but it still has wide and dusty quiet streets and lots of historic old buildings. One night we had dinner at a beautiful old wooden house that used to be the residence of the King’s physician. Luang Prabang recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site which should help to preserve the old buildings and temples and the old world charm it possesses.

One of the most famous temples in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong. In one building we found an impressive funery carriage along with hundreds of Buddha statues. The other buildings had lovely murals depicting village life on the outside and the main temple had cute elephant heads around it. The temples in Luang Prabang differ from those in Thailand because they have much lower sweeping roofs. Another difference is the way the buddhist monks and novices wear their orange robes. In Thailand they covered themselves up totally but here they wear their robes off the shoulder exposing some flesh. Is it the fashion?

While we were in Luang Prabang the sky was often hazy and smoky due to the large amount of fields that are slashed and burnt at this time of year in this area. Most days it was only really noticable when the sun set a vivid red but on our last day the air was thick with smoke making our eyes sting, the sun was an unnatural bright red during the day and large leaf sized fragments of vegetation fell from the sky.

Kwang Si Waterfall

We hadn’t planned to climb all the way but somehow we ended up at the top of the 80m waterfall before we realised how far we’d climbed. Luckily it was the dry season so the mud wasn’t too slippy but I had my moments coming down when I thought I was going to fall. It was pretty steep in places but a really lovely climb through the wooded area at the side of the waterfall, sometimes right by the waterfall and sometimes we just heard it and followed a trail in the direction of the noise. At one point we had to cross the waterfall, getting very wet. These pictures don’t give an overall impression of the scale of the waterfall because they are taken at different points on the way up but it cascaded down to big green pools at the bottom where some people were swimming – we were wet enough by this point and settled for a drink and a rest overlooking the waterfall. On the way out we saw a tiger called Phet that lives in the compound. She was rescued as a cub and is kept in a pretty big enclosure but unfortunately her two brothers died and she lives on her own.

Jo, Kwang Si Waterfall Richard, Kwang Si Waterfall

Being suckers for punishment when we got back to Luang Prabang at 4pm we decided to walk up the biggest hill in town which is a popular spot to watch the sunset over the Mekong River and the mountains. The hill is 100m but that’s 329 agonising steps and when we got there the smoke from the slash and burn meant that the sun disappeared in a puff of smoke well before it was due to set. The temple at the top is the focus of the Buddhist New Year celebrations in April.

We decided to have a quiet evening with just a couple of drinks in Lao-Irish Guesthouse’s garden which has tables and chairs and a raised platform with triangular cushions on perfect for relaxing. When we got there we found a party going on for Sone Noi who was working at the guesthouse and had just turned 22 – so young. They’d run out of vodka so Richard nipped off and bought a bottle which we planned to share over the next few nights. It was not to be. The quiet drink turned into noisy mayhem as Sone invited us to join the party. One bottle of vodka and countless hours later we were very drunk as was everyone else as the booze buckets (very popular – half a bottle of spirit filled up with coke or sprite or something in a bucket with straws for people to share it) were drunk and as every five minutes Sone asked you to drink half a glass of Beerlao and toast him on his birthday. Kingsmill got more cake than he bargained for. We were thinking of leaving the next day but we ended up staying another three nights. (to recover!)

Temple, Luang Prabang

Somehow we managed a trip to the Royal Palace Museum the next day which was the Royal Palace until 1975 when the King and his wife were exiled during the Revolution and apparently died in a cave in Northern Laos. It looks like a really old building but was only built in 1904. It had some interesting artefacts in, mostly items which belonged to the Royal Family or other important people in Lao. One room contained presents from other countries and from the US there were a couple of Lao flags about the size of postcards which had been aboard some of the Apollo missions. Given that the US was secretly bombing Loas at the time that Apollo 11 landed on the moon it propably means that they took the flag of every nation with them – I wonder where the UK’s is kept??

Vang Vieng

Nam Song River, Vang Vieng

Unless you hire a taxi the only way to go to Vang Vieng is by local clapped out old bus. We were lucky to get a proper seat but it was very cramped and when the bus was full more people piled on and sat on uncomfortable looking plastic stools in the passageway. We travelled up and down and round the mountains covering 150km in 6 hours which is a speedy 25km/hr or about 15mph! The bus made a couple of stops, one for lunch in a small village and once for a toilet break. When I say ‘toilet’ there weren’t actually any toilets we just stopped in the middle of the road and everyone piled off and went to the loo. Some people made it to the side of the road but most just used the middle of the road including the women who just lifted their skirts and got on with it. Richard joined them [I’d like to point out that I was *not* wearing a skirt, but “joined them” in the sense of going to the toilet at the roadside – ed] but I’m not quite up for that yet so I held it until we got there. Squats toilets I can cope with and I don’t mind the open air but I can’t quite bring myself to have a piss in front of 40 other people. I wasn’t that desperate but I guess if the journey had been 10 hours maybe I’d have had to get over my western embarrassment. Another local custom that we didn’t join in was chucking rubbish out of the window – plastic bottles, sandwich wrappers, anything in fact. No wonder that for the whole route the side of the road is littered with trash.

Vang Vieng, like Pai, is a town that has grown up for tourists because it is halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (the Lao capital). It is very similar, geared up for tourists but with lovely scenery, Nam Song river and striking mountains. As in Luang Prabang the smoke in the sky makes for a lovely sunset and when we were there lots of people were doing their washing in the river, that’s washing their trucks, motorbikes and themselves as well as their laundry.

We did what you do in Vang Vieng which is take a trip down the river sitting on a rubber inner tube. We were dropped off about 3km upstream and it took nearly three hours to float back – that’s 1km/hr, slower than walking and sometimes you didn’t move at all unless you paddled. Novel and relaxing for a while but it got a bit tedious. It was nice to see the world go by and there were lots of really brightly coloured dragonflies, yellow, red or blue which kept landing on us and were really beautiful. Like the waterfalls, it would be much better in the wet season as there just wasn’t enough water for a fast flowing river. There were a couple of mini rapids which were quite fun and if it had all been rapids it would have been an exciting ride.

I got to see the second race of the Grand Prix season in Vang Vieng – the Malaysian race that we were supposed to go and see. It was to be over a month before we actually got to Malaysia – guess our scheduling was a bit out. Looks like yet another Schumacher season as well – two races, two wins…


The first thing that strikes you when you reach Vientiane is that although it’s a capital city it feels like a quiet and laid back town. It has wide streets, old colonial buildings and not very much traffic. People don’t seem to be in a hurry and nobody bothers to beep their horns unlike the other countries we’ve visited where everyone is in a rush. Vientiane is built on one side of the Mekong River and on the other side of the river is Thailand. The river was very low when we were there and in some places dried up but everybody seemed to congregate there anyway. At dusk, it was a little hive of activity with people playing ball games, doing aerobics, taking a stroll or sitting by one of the small kiosks having that first beer of the day – we joined them – ahh cafe life. We spent our first evening pottering around and ended up spending the evening with a guy we’d met on the plane to Laos a week before.

We spent four days in Laos and managed to take in a few of the sights as you can see below. We called Sally and Anne to see if they were free and met up with them and a friend of theirs, Khamtan, in the very plush Lao Plaza Hotel before going for dinner in a restaurant called Khawp Chai Deu where we sat out on the pretty terrace, had some nice Lao and Thai food (Richard had Lao steak and chips) and got to know each other. Sally and Anne grew up in England but returned to Laos a few years ago to work in development areas, Sally in health and Anne in banking. Sally took us to the Lao National State Circus one night with her seven month old son, Leon and her nephew and niece. Being the big kids that we are we really enjoyed it, I was especially excited because it was the first time I had ever been to the circus. There were all the usual acts such as the clowns, acrobats and tightrope walkers. The performers are Lao but they were taught by a Russian troupe and they all have day jobs and don’t perform regularly which might account for the wobbliness of the tightrope walkers and some of the acrobats during some of the acts. I was glad they had safety ropes on when they did the balancing acts high above the arena. Having said that, the performers where incredibly entertaining and skilful and it was great fun.

Anne, Sally, Khamtan and Jo

Victory Monument, Vientiane

Patuxai (Victory Monument) resembles the Arch de Triomphe in Paris but with Asian style decoration. Under the arch are beautiful paintings and if you climb to the top you are rewarded with a lovely view of Vientiane. The city sprawls out for miles but the buildings are all low level and there is so much vegetation that you can just about spot a building here and there through the camouflage. You can see from this picture just how quiet the streets are. Apparently, Patuxai was built in 1969 with cement purchased by the United States which was supposed to be used to build a new airport – hence the local name of “the vertical runway”.

Lao National History Museum

Formerly the Revolutionary Museum, it now contains a room containing dinosaur fossils and ancient tools found quite recently in Laos but the rest of the museum is dedicated to Lao’s long struggle for independence. The museum has some interesting exhibits and you can see a few artefacts from the battles with Thailand and then a huge number of items and photographs taken during the battles with France and the United States. Although the museum has changed it’s name from ‘Revolutionary’ to ‘National History’ it has not changed the labels on the exhibits which are strongly communist and revolutionary in nature using phrases such as ‘the US Imperialists and their puppets’.

Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park)

Buddha Park, Vientiane

The quirkiest place we’ve been to so far was this small park, designed on the whim of one man, which was densely packed with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures made of cement. There were literally hundreds of quite intricate sculptures but the most impressive were the big sculptures of a reclining buddha and one which looked like a big pumpkin. The big pumpkin, which reminded me of James and the Giant Peach, was split into three levels which represent hell, earth and heaven and we walked inside the pumpkin and up through the levels to emerge at the top. Each level has a corridor around an inner chamber which you couldn’t enter but you could see hundreds of statues inside through windows in the wall. You could also look out over the park through windows in the outer wall.

Saturday was our last day in Vientiane and we met up with Sally and Anne for lunch before they drove us to the Friendship Bridge border between Laos and Thailand stopping for a quick look at the outside of That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa) which is a big golden stupa and a symbol of Laos. It was great to get to meet them and we really appreciated the way they dropped everything for a few days to spend some time with us. After crossing the border (a land border crossed in vehicles and Laos drives on the right and Thailand on the left… So you’d build a flyover to change the lanes over yes? Nope, you leave it flat and have a very strange four-way intersection where traffic lights control you as you change which side of the road you are driving on!) we got a tuk-tuk to Nong Khai where we got the overnight train back to Bangkok. We had been slightly apprehensive about getting our tickets which we were due to pick up at the station. We booked the tickets on the Wednesday and went to pick up the tickets on the Thursday but only one had arrived so we were told to come back on Friday. On Friday they hadn’t arrived from Thailand and we were told to pick them up from the train station in Thailand. Once we got into Thailand if the tickets weren’t at the station we couldn’t go back to Laos to the travel agent because you need a visa so we were a bit worried we might have been done. At Nong Khai station they told us our tickets had gone to Laos but would be sent back and should arrive by 4pm in plenty of time for the train which was due to leave at 6.30pm. At 4pm we were told they would arrive at 5pm which, luckily, they did. We were relieved but we had been done in a small way because we had booked and paid for one lower berth and one upper berth but we got two upper berths which are cheaper than the lower berths…. but at least we could get back to Bangkok.

Our next journey was down to the islands in Southern Thailand

Northern Thailand

Mar 1 – 10

We spent nearly two weeks back in Bangkok, not resting but trying to edit down the four hours of video tape we’d taken so far into a more watchable 20 minutes. It was a short learning process but a long hard slog to make just the most basic film but the end result was watchable and mildly interesting for our families, who hadn’t seen us for four months, if not the wider public.

Cooped up in Sawasdee Khaosan Inn during the day, we dragged ourselves away from the computer screen in the evenings to sample some of the delights of Bangkok and to avoid others:
  1. Watched the fantastic Lord of the Rings on the big screen
  2. Walked around the infamous Patpong area, a strange mix of touristy market stalls and go-go bars where the touts don’t show you the cocktail or dinner menu but the tricks menu with items such as the ping-pong ball trick
  3. Enjoyed the best burger in Asia at Henry J Beans Bar and Grill
  4. Boogied with the locals at the Hard Rock Cafe (Bon Jovi to Chilli Peppers to Thrash Metal)
  5. Had a big scare one night when we went for dinner and found that the bar wasn’t serving alcohol because it was Buddhist Day!!! (fortunately not observed at every bar! But most wouldn’t serve beer.)

I had my fourth rabies jab whilst we were in Bangkok. A quick trip down to the Seventh Day Adventist Mission Hospital, 650 baht, and no sterotpyical doctors. The best thing was finding out that I’d lost 10kgs of weight since leaving home (1 ½ stone for those not yet metricised) – must be all those missed meals, and walking everywhere! Only one more jab to go.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand but nowhere near as big or busy as Bangkok. It’s very peaceful and is known for the night markets and the huge density of temples. Hmmm – temples that’s one thing we had managed to avoid since arriving in Thailand in November. It was now March so as we walked past Wat Chiang Man our consciences wouldn’t let us put off going inside a Thai temple any longer so we ducked in for a quick look. Like most Wats it’s actually a complex of buildings with an impressive main temple and various smaller but just as ornate outer buildings. Wat Chiang Man was a good temple to visit as it has two claims to fame: it is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, built by the founder of the town, King Mengrai, in 1296 and it houses the famous Crystal Buddha, a very small buddha almost hidden by it’s case which was shuttled back and forth between Siam and Laos for many years while they fought over ownership. All temples in Thailand advertise themselves by the buddha they contain and you can’t walk down the street in Bangkok without tuk-tuk drivers shouting at you, ‘Emerald Buddha, Big Buddha, Golden Buddha, Reclining Buddha’. We would see them all before we left Thailand for the final time….

In the evening we wandered around the night markets and then went to listen to some live music at one of the riverside bars. The night markets are where interesting hill tribe crafts and the usual tourist tat can be bought at a more reasonable price than in Bangkok. Of course you still have to bargain hard which we aren’t very good at. We think we’ve got a wonderful deal if we get the price down a third whereas we should probably only be paying a third of the original price. When a pair of chopsticks is 15p it’s difficult to think you’ve been ripped off.

The music we went to see was OK, but the headline set of the night had a real tendency to add five minute guitar solos into the middle of classic tracks that could really do without them, then they invited a guest guitarist onto stage who had to go one better and add 10 minute solos to the middle and the end of each track. Boring. So we left about midnight (a flight to catch the next morning anyway, so probably not too bad a decision.)

Mae Hong Son

The flight we took from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son was the shortest (25 minutes) and cheapest (under £15) ever and there was stunning mountain scenery as we went further north. However, Richard wasn’t impressed with Chiang Mai airport domestic departures, dreaming of a MacDonalds breakfast all we could get was a mediocre coffee. It was the worst airport we’ve been to for shops and restaurants – it didn’t have any. Really none – and we’d made the mistake of getting there far too early. So crap coffee and a couple of chocolate bars had to do for breakfast and lunch. Add to that the fact that it was the day of the first Grand Prix of the season, and we were missing it stuck in an airport lounge and Richard was not amused….

Mae Hong Son is at the far north of Thailand, almost on the Burmese border and there are a lot of hill tribes in the area made up of refugees, mainly from Burma. Some of the hill tribes will let tourists stay with them so quite a lot of people do organised treks through the hills stopping overnight with different hill tribes. We’d heard horror stories from some very fit people who had found the trek incredibly difficult so I wasn’t confident I’d be fit enough to go up and down hills all day. Also we didn’t feel comfortable about staying with a hill tribe and imposing even though we knew that they would make some money from the tour. We decided to go on a day tour around the sights instead. The hotel room we stayed in here deserves a mention because it was freezing. It gets pretty cold in the hills and I hadn’t noticed that the wooden house we were staying in didn’t have any glass in the windows, just a mosquito net. Well, you wouldn’t think that you needed to check that the room had windows in a hotel would you? Brrrrr….

Driving around the hills the scenery was lovely. First stop, Tham Pla National Park where the main attraction is some big blue carp which live in a cave and like to sit in the current! Honestly, anything can be a tourist attraction in Thailand.

Hmong village, Mae Hong Son The first hill tribe village we visited was a Hmong village. The Hmong were originally from Southern China and have been in Thailand for generations but do not have citizenship. We read in the papers that recently many children from different hill tribes have been trying to get Thai citizenship but at the moment they are refugees with few rights which doesn’t seem fair when they have lived in Thailand for generations. Apparently the Hmong people are good businesspeople and quite wealthy but they are determined to preserve their culture and animist religion so they live very simply in basic huts with mud floors. Although our guide seemed to have a good relationship with the villagers we still felt like intruders as we traipsed through their backyards to poke our noses around their front doors and peer into their living rooms.

Lake, Mae Hong Son The next village we visited was a Shan village which was part of a development project. Although Thailand is strictly anti-drugs some of the hill tribes are allowed to grow and use opium because it is so deeply a part of some hill tribes culture showing that there is at least one concession made by Thailand to these people. Village number three was also a Shan village renowned for it’s green tea which was very aromatic and refreshing. Here the people got on with their business and didn’t seem bothered by our presence. We even spent a few baht on the local raffle tempted by the exciting prizes we could win: a kitchen clock, some noodles and a bottle of beer. Unfortunately we didn’t win anything which was maybe a blessing because I’m not sure we could have fitted the kitchen clock into our backpacks – we already have a kettle, mugs, tea, coffee, sugar, coffee-mate, a big bottle of baileys and other comforts weighing us down – all essential, of course. However, we set our guide off on a small but obsessive gambling spree. She bought one ticket then another…. finally stopping when she still hadn’t won with 20 tickets.

Pha Sua waterfall was lovely but there wasn’t enough water for it to be very powerfull as it was the dry season. A waterfall without any water as our guide called it. Right the way around Asia we are going to see waterfalls without much water because we planned our trip to hit most of the dry seasons because it is so much more pleasant to travel during the dry season. Oh well, maybe a trip to Vic Falls or Niagara in a year or so.

Mada, Mae Hong Son Long Neck girls, Mae Hong Son

The last village on the trip was the one we felt most uncomfortable walking around. Two manned barriers kept the displaced people of Ban Nai Soi from the outside world. At first we thought maybe the barriers kept tourists out until they paid but then we realised that the barriers actually kept the war displaced refugees in. Ban Nai Soi is two villages side by side: the Long Neck and Long Earred Karen. Pretty obvious who belongs to which tribe and unsurprising that it is only the women that start with the hoops around their neck or earrings in their ears at the age of five and slowly add more or make them bigger until their bodies are deformed. This in itself is the choice of the people but the village seems to exist soley for tourism now. There is the entrance fee and then nearly every hut has a stall selling postcards, keyrings and pencils all with pictures of the women on them. Our guide told us that apart from the possibility that the traditions are just carried on for tourists, another explanation is that the men in the village are worried that the women will try to leave the village and marry outside the community but the thought that their long-necks would be seen as odd prevents them. It is difficult not to stare because they do look so different with their heads seemingly disconected from their bodies and you wonder how it feels and if it is uncomfortable or debilitating at all. It was interesting to hear what the long neck women had to say. They told us that they don’t feel pity for themselves as they think the gold rings (actually a coil and nowadays made of brass) make them very beautiful and they do, they are very beautiful women as you can see in the pictures.

The girls put on their first ring at five years old, nowadays it is only those born on special days such as the full moon so not every girl. A ‘ring’ is added every year so each year the coil is replaced with a longer one until they reach the full coil which weighs five pounds. Although those with very long necks look awkward they say that it doesn’t affect their abilities or mobility or bother them because they get used to it over the years. The coils are only taken off if a woman is very sick or having a baby and this must be done by a doctor as the neck is very fragile. The ribs and bones in the neck and back are deformed and the muscles in the neck are weak so that the windpipe could easily crush without the coil on. A woman is buried with the coil on.

We found the women friendly and very happy to talk or be photographed but we still felt like we were in a theme park or zoo. We won’t be going to see any more hill tribe or other villages. The tour was as well done as it could be and our guide had good relationships with the villagers but you couldn’t get around the fact that you were crashing into people’s lives.


On the bus back to Chiang Mai we stopped for a few days in a place called Pai which has grown from a village into a tourist town, being halfway on the bus route from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai lots of people stop for a night to break the journey around the winding mountain roads. It’s a touristy place but it’s a great place to chill as it has a slow pace and beautiful scenery. We spent our days relaxing and the nights on the town.

Elephant ride, Pai Elephant ride, Pai

We went on an elephant ride and it was one of those times which are awful and terrifying when you do them but great to think you’ve done it. We rode our elephant (Phnom) bare back so there was nothing to hold onto. She went up and down steep slopes and we felt that we would fall over the top of her head or slide off down her back. All she seemed interested in was eating every bush so we stopped every couple of feet for her to have a munch. The best bit of the ride was when the elephants took us for a walk through the river and then went for a swim with us still on their backs. Some people were thrown off their elephant but we just about managed to stay on. We got soaked as Phnom filled her trunk and threw it back over us but that was the least of our worries. Can you imagine your terror as your elephant tries to throw you from her back into a river which has numerous huge, fresh elephant turds in it – I’ve never screamed so loud!!! The next day we felt like we had either done some strenuous inner thigh and buttock exercises for five hours or straddled a very wide, fully grown elephant for an hour and a half.

Pai is a nice place to hang out drinking fruit shakes and eating good food. Having said that Richard had a steak which had been peppered to within an inch of its life – unedible even for me and then there was the place that brought my starter (soup) and main course (vegetables and rice) together so I had to eat the main course first because the soup was hotter. Getting your meal at the same time as your dining companion has been a virtual imposibility in Thailand so getting two courses at the same time was surprising. Usually if you order two things from the menu they’ll arrive 20 minutes apart. If it says omelette and chips on the menu then you’re ok but if you order omelette from the eggs section and chips from side orders then nine times out of ten you won’t get them together. On the bright side we found a great place run by a Frenchman where Richard asked for the best steak in the house and the owner told him that he’d been to Chiang Mai to buy steak but there wasn’t really much call for it with backpackers because it was so expensive but he did have this one really good piece – it was really good but I’m sure the owner thought he was having that prime piece of beef in a day or two because nobody would order it – you could see the passion he felt for that bit of meat when he spoke about how good it was. He also added coconut milk to the Green Chicken Curry for me because it is usually too spicy for me. I think it must have something addictive in it because I get this urge to order it and each time I have it is too spicy for me to eat half of it.

Pai is also great for relaxing either by the outdoor swimming pool which becomes a kicking club in the evening or lying on one of the wooden platforms under the shade of the trees by the gently rippling river, just reading or chatting or dozing……so peaceful.

I know we talk about good live bands a lot but there is one in Pai that really deserves a mention only we don’t know the name of the band. They played at the Bebop every other night and there, there was a man that could really sing the blues. When he sang Mannish Boy………

Another night in Chiang Mai

We spent another Saturday night in Chiang Mai trying out another of the riverside bars – this one was actually called The Riverside and had another band on – this one much better than the previous weeks. The bar was packed out with locals rather than tourists so we must have come to the right place. The next day we flew to Luang Prabang in Laos, this time going through Chiang Mai International Departures which was worse than the domestic departure area as you couldn’t even buy a coffee or bottle of water – just a bottle of vodka from the duty free shop – we didn’t. We flew in a little prop plane which only held about eighty people and was a lot more unstable on landing than most planes – being small it got a lot closer to the ground than big 737’s and the like so it felt that you were approaching the runaway far too fast. Richard is still moaning about the dents my fingernails made in his hands.

Onto Laos


Feb 9 – 17

The Mekong River – Part 2

Having had such a hard day of travel the day before we decided to bunk off the next morning’s entertainment (a floating village and floating fish farm). We’d seen a fish farm in Nha Trang and unbeknownst to us we would see a Vietnamese Floating village in Cambodia a few days later so we didn’t miss much and it meant we got a lie in until 7.30am!! Here is a picture that Sue took on their Mekong tour. We weren’t the only ones to bunk off, two Australian girls, Kate and Jane overheard that we were missing the next mornings activities and decided to follow our good example.

Crossing the border into Cambodia

We took a boat to the border where we had to get off and cross the border on foot which makes you really feel you are entering another country compared to flying in. We rushed through the Vietnamese border because our guide on the boat had already done all the paperwork and we just santered through. Then we were in no-mans land where there were actually quite a few people around, Vietnamese or Cambodian I don’t know. When we got to Cambodian immigration we all walked straight on through – all of us that is apart from the only other Brit on the boat who had already proved over the previous day he was a twit and a pain in the neck by refusing to share a room with anyone and then insisting he had ordered beef for lunch and demanding his money back when beef wasn’t even on the menu – duh! It seems that he had travelled from Cambodia to Vietnam and now wanted to go back to Cambodia but his visa was only for single entry and he hadn’t checked. He looked like a twit but you had to feel a teensy bit sorry for him as he was made to go back all the way to Ho Chi Minh which would take another full day. You can bet that the boat that dropped us off would have charged him a good amount to take him back and they had taken his Vietnamese visa from him when he left Vietnam so they would have every right to make him pay for another one to go back in.

Then we got the speedboats for an hour and a half and then a taxi for the same time again along some bumpy roads to Phnom Penh where we were dropped at the Lakeside Guesthouse on Boeng Kak Lake where all the backpackers hang out.

Phnom Penh


What we refer to as Lakeside is a squalid little collection of guesthouses, restaurants and other buildings. When I say squalid, I mean squalid. The only redeeming feature was that most of the guesthouses had lovely communal areas with hammocks and nice seats overlooking the lake – gorgeous at sunset, and peaceful during the day. Otherwise – yuk! Cheap rooms tho’ – but we’d rather pay a little more and not feel that we have to get mindlessly drunk before we can return to the room – and even then, make sure you touch as little as possible. We actually turned down the first room we saw as not nice enough – but then saw the rest of the places, and by that time the one half-way clean room had gone (turned out the bathroom leaked into the room tho’ – so not that great a loss).

Sunset at Lakeside, Phnom Penh Mosque at Lakeside, Phnom Penh

We stayed three nights in the Lakeside area – mainly due to getting there late one day, mistakenly moving from a bad room to a dreadful one the next day, and me having my third rabies jab the following day (the most English of English Doctors – hysterically so in fact, but then he presented the bill which wasn’t so funny: don’t get ill or need treatment in Cambodia, they’ll take an arm and a leg even if it’s just a sore throat…) After that we moved into the town centre to a place called…


Walkabout was an Aussie (surprise!) run place in a great location in the centre Phnom Penh, right near the Heart of Darkness nightclub (so good we bought the t-shirt), and close to the riverside area with it’s nice bars and restaurants. What we hadn’t realised when we looked around during the day was that the place turned into a bit of pick up joint for the local expats at night – and those that hadn’t left with one of the young Cambodian ladies during the night seemed to stay in the bar drinking till about 6am when they’d leave on loudly revving bikes – not much sleep for us three floors up. Apart from that tho’ it was a good place: nice room, good food, pool table: just spend the evening elsewhere and bring ear plugs.

One of the best places we went to in Phnom Penh was the Foreign Correspondents Club. The Phnom Penh branch is open to all, unlike the Hong Kong one which is members only (thanks again to Keith for taking us there). Definately one of the nicest places in town. Great to have coffee in the morning, or a full meal in the evening – being on the first floor raises you above the bustle of street level, but the great view allows you to keep an eye on what is happening. Highly recommeneded (and they take plastic!)

We took in a few sights around town as well: the clock in the ground at the temple (Wat Phnom) to the north, the independence monument etc. The Royal Palace complex was particularly beautiful and housed the Silver Pagoda whose floor is covered with 5000 silver tiles. Phnom Penh is obviously a city still struggling to rebuild itself after years of war, but it seems to be going in the right direction: it’ll be years before the roads are finished tho’ – a lot of main roads through town are still just dirt and rocks, can’t imagine what it’s like during the rainy season.

We took a trip out to the Killing Fields, and a visit to the S-21 school turned Khmer Rouge prison camp. Nothing much to say about that really – the picture says more than I can. More than 8000 skulls were on display here but the total number of people bludgeoned to death at the Killing Fields was around 17,000. A dreadful period in the country’s history that I knew nothing much about before coming here – blame a 1980s comprehensive education for that: more interested in going on strike than teaching me about millions being murdered by their own government, although I can’t imagine it makes the syllabus these days either.

To Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

We took the boat to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh – not feeling upto several hours of Cambodian road (much improved of late apparently, a four wheel drive isn’t now essential, and you are less likely to get shot by left over Khmer Rouge than previously). The boat was of the usual high standard that we were coming to expect. Basically see how many people you can crowd onto an old, and probably undermaintained craft. Then add all their luggage. We sat on top, and that doesn’t mean in seats – literally on top of the boat. A 10cm high rail around the edge being all that held us in. Five noisy, hot, hours later (and some great scenery) we arrived at Siem Reap. Well, we arrived at the point where we could get a taxi or moto the last 15kms to Siem Reap. And there were people waiting to offer us that ride: hundreds of them, all clamouring for our business. One even had a board with our names on to take us to the partner hotel of where we’d booked the boat ticket from, but that place was a bit out of town so we denied who we were and found a taxi of our own. Thus we met Mr. Lay: a man of many talents as you shall see. One of them being able to drive slowly, but surely across the poor imitation of a road from the pier to the town.

After finding a place to stay with Mr. Lay’s help, and taking his mobile number in case we wanted his tour of Angkor we took a wander around town. Apart from being hot there wasn’t much to it. Certainly not the ability to process APS film. A bit tired, and frankly getting fed up with how (relatively) expensive everything was in Cambodia we decided that we could rush around Angkor the next day and bail out back to Bangkok the following day. Once in Bangkok we’d be able to settle down and take stock of things before the next leg. Having decided that we’d only do one day at Angkor we chose to take up Mr. Lay on his offer of a “sunrise to sunset” tour – bound to be hard going, but we’d see a lot. So we called him and arranged to meet at 5:30am the next day.

After not thinking much of Siem Reap during the afternoon it was actually a bit better in the evening. We found a nice restaurant that took plastic so we could conserve our dwindling supply of US dollars (great currency system in Cambodia – anything of even moderate cost is in US$s, Riel, the local currency, is just used for making up change on a fraction of a dollar (about 4000 Riel to US$1): confusing at first but you get used to it (until they start to add in Thai Baht as a third currency that is!)). Best thing about the restaurant: large bottles of Stella Artois. Beer that tastes like beer should. Yum, yum! Second best thing: Cash back on the credit card. Took some explaining to get over what I wanted: “Can you add US$10 to the bill, and give me it as change?” “Yes, I don’t mind you adding the 4% surcharge onto the extra” (slight lie that, but hey…). Once the manager had got involved as well, it all went fine and we left with enough greenbacks to get us through our stay.

Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most well known temple and the most impressive but there are quite a few interesting temples in the area; all built by Khmer kings between the 9th and 13th centuries. We arrived (driven by Mr Lay) in the dark. Mr Lay turned out of be more driver than guide and merely recommended where to visit and then dropped us off at each temple. So he dropped us off in the dark outside Angkor Wat. We couldn’t see a lot but we followed a few other people and walked over a bridge, through a gateway, along a walkway and then into the main temple. Luckily we’d brought a torch and it was a slightly spooky but fun experience sneaking around the temple. Then we walked to one of the lakes in the compound where people were starting to gather – this was obviously the best place to watch the sunrise. It was beautiful as you can see watching the sky turn from black, to dark purple, pink, orange, yellow until the sun peaked over one of the five towers of Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Hindu God at Angkor Wat

We explored the main temple which was a maze of corridors and rooms with some well-preserved bas-reliefs depicting famous battles, ceremonies and daily life of that time, climbed the steep steps up one of the towers and stood at the top surveying the whole Angkor Wat complex which includes two symmetrically built libraries and lakes around the central walkway, an outer wall with gates and a moat around it. There are three stories to the main temple so climbing to the top we were 55 metres above the ground with a superb view of the surroundings – just don’t get too close to the edge.

Ta Phrom, Ta Keo and Preah Khan

We visited three other temples: Ta Phrom was interesting because it has been left in ruins as it was found over a century ago. To see it we had to walk through the jungle so you could really imagine the wonder of the explorers that discovered it. It is now possibly to late to rebuild it because nature has taken over and the parts of the temple still standing have trees growing out of them and roots running through the gaps which mean that without the trees it would collapse. Ta Keo is a striking temple but we didn’t venture into it. The security guard here offered to sell us a police badge! Couldn’t tell if it was real though. Preah Khan was marred for us by a tour guide latching himself onto us early on, we couldn’t lose him and actually he took us to a spot where there was an engraving of a Queen on the wall, we had to climb over rubble and walk through tunnels to get there so we would never have found it on our own. As we left he kicked up a nasty fuss because we hadn’t given him enough money but then we hadn’t discussed money and hadn’t wanted the tour but it left a nasty feeling. I think we gave him a fair amount of money and it was the last of our riel but he wasn’t very pleasant.

Angkor Thom

We had hoped to see sunset at Angkor Thom but we were exhausted. Still, it was nearly as impressive as Angkor Wat; a fortified city of about 10 square kilometres. There were a number of structures but the best was the Bayon, a wonderful temple which doesn’t look much from a distance but when you get close you see some of the 200 large smiling (but slightly mocking and eerie) faces carved into the towers. From one spot inside the Bayon we could see 12 faces looking down on us – spooky!

The Road From Hell, But Towards Thailand

We booked a big bus to take us to Thailand with our talented Mr. Lay. Next morning we stood waiting outside our hotel for 30 minutes wondering if Mr. Lay had run off with our money. Eventually he turned up dressed as a policeman! and took us to the, not so big, bus. He said that he used to be a policeman and was going to help his uncle to collect a debt – very dodgy.

It took a long and bumpy five hours to drive the 100km to the border but until recently only pick-up trucks could make the journey and often they found the fields easier to drive over than the roads – they probably went slower than our average 20km/hr. It took two hours to cross the border into Thailand and another five hours to reach Bangkok but it did only cost US$24 (US$8 each but we bought an extra seat for Richard’s legs!).

After a couple of weeks in Bangkok we headed to Northern Thailand

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong River

Feb 3 – 9

Ho Chi Minh City

Taxi scams were a regular occurrence by now so it was no surprise when the taxi driver that had driven us from the train station to Bui Vien Road demanded another $1 for having 4 passengers in his taxi. This wasn’t mentioned when we got into the taxi! It was 5.30am and we weren’t in the mood to give in to him so we refused to give it to him and after a little rudeness and huffing and puffing he gave up. Next we had to deal with the hotel touts who followed us around trying to take us to the hotels that would give them a commission. We tried to find a hotel ourselves but it was 6am and not many were open, a few were full so we gave in and went to a nice hotel which the touts took us to – Hai Dong. The touts had said it would be $8, it turned out to be $10 but we were too tired to argue or keep looking so we took it and fell into bed for a few hours before exploring the city. The Hai Dong Hotel had a couple of interesting house rules: Opium is not strictly prohibited (that’s a bit half-hearted!) and No prostitutes allowed in the rooms (does that mean that on the stairs or in the bar would be ok?)

Ho Chi Minh is much bigger than Hanoi and moves at a faster pace; we didn’t find any beautiful quiet oasis like the lake in Hanoi but we did find a nice, if a bit noisy, park. The park had lots of blooming flower stalls which we saw a lot while we were in Ho Chi Minh because we were there the week before Tet (Chinese New Year), which was February 12 this year. The city was preparing for the holiday celebrations with decorations and lots of lovely flower markets which really brightened up the city. After visiting the very French Dr. Pin for my second rabies jab we passed by a school where all the parents were waiting to take their kids home on scooters – makes a change from the fleets of 4x4s you see in London!

Updated June 02: We picked up some more cheap DVD’s and CD’s here, but got a shock whilst looking through one box of PC software: There, staring up at us, was a copy of “Respect Inc.” Pure Entertainment’s second game – just goes to show that they will pirate anything! Even at 50p we didn’t think it was worth buying a copy. It comes as a bit of a shock to see some of your own work for sale in a tiny stall in south Vietnam.

A piccy here of the five of us (from left to right) Richard, Sue, Jo, Amanda and Jacqui on our last night together in the Good Morning Vietnam restaurant – we managed to visit all three branches in the chain along the way down the coast: attempts to blag a free t-shirt by informing the manager of this failed, oh well! Richard, Sue, Jo, Amanda and Jacqui in Good Morning Vietnam, HCM

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels were first built by the Viet Minh who used them while fighting French colonisation, in the 1940s. The underground honeycomb was expanded to over 200kms of tunnels by the communist Viet Cong guerillas in the late 1950s and served as a command centre and communication network during the American/Vietnam War in the 1960’s. The tunnels are quite close to Ho Chi but there are other tunnels around the country. We got to see the many types of hideous traps which we used to protect the tunnels, the massive holes where bombs from B52s were dropped, a tank, bombs and artillary. We sat in one of the underground rooms – a conference room and went down one of the tunnels, which had been specially widened for tourists to 120cm x 80cm. If you bent your legs and bent forwards it was possible to walk through the tunnel but it was very dark and claustrophobic and the air smells and tastes musty. We were happy to get out, it must have been horrible to have spent months underground at a time. There was another smaller tunnel (80cm x 50cm) which some people when through but none of us fancied it – once you go in the only way out is the other end – what if we got stuck?

Got to shoot some big guns here. An AK-47, the terrorists gun of choice, for Richard and the M-16 (lightweight ‘girls’ gun) for Jacqui, Sue and I – piccy of Jo taking up the armed struggle here. We didn’t win anything though – in fact none of us hit the target at all – we just need a bit of practise.

Saigon Water Park – A Grand Day Out

Very rarely have I had this much fun. There were all the usual slides and wave pools to muck about in but we (Amanda too) got more than we expected here. There were probably 15-20 adults at the Water Park (all westerners) and there were hundreds of Vietnamese school children. They probably thought it was very strange to see adults mucking about in the water but they took advantage and had some fun with us. The first time we were ambushed on the Lazy River. There we were relaxing on our rubber rings, floating down the river and minding our own business when we were surrounded by 20 or so children. They started to say hello, ask our names and tried a couple of the other english phrases they had learnt in school on us – they were very good. But when their confidence increased we were for it; they took great delight in shooting us with their water pistols, splashing us and even trying to capsize us from our rings. They found us hilarious and they relentlessly attacked us until, exhausted, we found a way out of the river and made our escape… only to be pounced on by another group of children when we were in the Wave Pool. This time they really just wanted to practise their english (and in the case of one girl, french!) on us. Richard looked quite scared though when he was surrounded by a group of giggly 12 year old girls. 1 The bravest girl in the group would ask him a question and when he answered they would all blush coyly and giggle – young love eh?!!!

We went to the Water Park on our last day in Ho Chi Minh before leaving to go on a boat on the Mekong River that would take us to Cambodia. But before we left Ho Chi Minh we had one very important thing left to do……we had to fill our boots…with as many cds and dvds as we could carry – our music collection is starting to look halfway decent now – ok, in our opinion – I’m sure some people would disagree!

The Mekong River

To get from Ho Chi Minh to Cambodia you can a) fly (expensive), b) take the bus (10 hours or more on bumpy roads) or c) take the boat – mmm that sounds good especially when one of the tours is advertising a MORE BOAT LESS BUS tour. Perfect… but hold on you’ve forgotten something – oh yes, this is Vietnam so no way are you going to get what they tell you. So when the leaflet reads ‘only three and a half hours on the bus’ you need to realise that it will be over 5 hours. When it says ‘first class, deluxe, luxury big boat with bar and restaurant’ what it really means is ‘right, first we’re going to stuff a dangerously large number of people and all their luggage into small, unstable longboats and we’ll make sure they are so packed in that they can’t move a muscle. After 30 minutes of discomfort (hopefully the boat won’t capsize if there is a strong bit of wash??) they’ll meet up with a bigger boat and have to make a mid-river transfer with all of their belongings. The bigger boat will have sofas (but with all the springs broken) and the bar and restaurant will sell coffee, beer, coke and crisps – that’s it’ The icing on the cake was the ‘big boat’ we went on in Cambodia which was actually a number of speedboats!!

Still, enough moaning, we got to Cambodia in one piece and some parts of the Mekong Trip were nice. I’m sure it was still more comfortable to take the boat than go all the way by bus. The trip also included a short trek through a Vietnamese village to an observation deck which overlooked a stork sanctuary. Seeing the storks wasn’t that impressive, the walk through the village was the highlight. A number of children started walking along with us. A little boy, he was probably twelve or more but looked about eight, took hold of Richard’s hand as we walked along. He didn’t chatter like some of the other children but he was very diligent in his duty of walking with us. When Richard wanted to take some video the boy wouldn’t let go of Richard’s hand until he had my hand firmly in his grasp (iron grip!). I tried to talk to him but he really didn’t understand much. He was shy and quiet but he stuck to us like glue. When we left our little guy we gave him a pen and later we saw him again trying to direct people to somewhere to buy things – bye bye.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing life on the Mekong River: the houses on stilts, women lowering buckets from their doors in the houses to get water out of the river, hundreds of shabby wooden houses but 99% had TV aerials (priorities eh!), people taking their baths in the river, kids going mad – shouting and waving at us, men fishing from their small boats that rock dangerously as we pass them, the lushness of the scenery and watching the sunset over the banks of the river as we speed by.

Sunset over the Mekong river Sunset over the Mekong river

After walking a gangplank over the river to disembark from the boat we stayed the night in Chau Doc which is near the Cambodian border. The rest of the story of our trip along the Mekong to Cambodia continues on the Cambodia page…

Last impressions:

Worst things about Vietnam

Not many things lessened our enjoyment in and appreciation of Vietnam but the amount of hastle we got from taxi drivers and cyclo drivers was relentless and tiresome. In Nha Trang, particularly, they followed us around all the time. The first morning cyclos followed Jacqui and I for half an hour and no amount of polite refusal sent them on their way, it made us uncomfortable and was disheartening. Then there were the famous scams, I think we were done at least once a day! Everybody involved in tourism was trying to take us for a ride. They had no shame about it. Sometimes we didn’t notice and then kicked ourselves but there was nothing we could really do about it and it was always just a few pounds that we lost so we had to curse them and then laugh about it. If it had been going to someone who needed it we wouldn’t have cared, but those in the tourism industry are amongst the richest Vietnamese, the people who’d really benefit from a couple of extra dollars never got a chance. Apart from these small things the only other hard thing we had to cope with was getting sweet, thick, disgusting condensed milk in our coffee. It really was revolting. Even when we asked for fresh milk we would often get a glass which looked like black coffee but with a thin white layer at the bottom. You know it’s condensed milk when you put your spoon in and it stands up. Condensed milk is incredibly sweet but the gloopy texture is what really makes you feel sick.

Best things about Vietnam

These far outweigh the negatives. Vietnam is a beautiful country and relatively unspoilt by all of us tourists traipsing around but that will probably change as it is much easier to travel to and around nowadays. It was the most different way of life we have seen, so far. The people (taxi and cyclo drivers excluded) were fantastic. Friendly (especially Anh in our hotel in Nha Trang) and helpful (Dr Dao and the staff at the hospital in Nha Trang). We were overwhelmed by the kids everywhere, they literally gawped at us. We didn’t know whether we felt like celebrities or freaks and got a taste of what it must be like for all people in the communities we traipse through on our travels. The kids didn’t have any shyness so we couldn’t walk down the street without a loads of them saying hello every minute and when we were on boats we got sore arms from waving so much at kids on the bank. We saw lots of beautiful places and met lots of lovely people but, for me, the best and most unforgettable experience was that day at the Water Park.

Vietnam – Nha Trang

Jan 28 – Feb 2

Nha Trang is a beach resort about two-thirds of the way down the coast from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. We’d got the overnight train from Hoi An, in the hard sleeper compartment rather than soft sleeper as that was booked up. Hard sleeper wasn’t as bad as we were expecting (there was a thin mattress), but there was much less space in the cabin than in the soft sleeper (six berths vs. four).

We arrived in Nha Trang about 6am, and outside the station was the usual cacophony of taxi drivers and hotel touts. We brushed them off and got into a taxi and asked to be taken to an area where we could go and check out several hotels. Unfortunately a tout had got to the taxi driver and he took us to a hotel we’d already dismissed, but we were getting wise to this sort of thing now, so we didn’t open the taxi doors and after a bit of shouting he took us on to where we’d asked to go. We dragged our luggage out of the car and onto the edge of the beach which looked very nice with the sun rising over it. Jo and Jacqui went to find a hotel for us and after checking out a few they came back reporting sucess, so we grabbed our bags and staggered up the road to the Thanh Binh hotel. Nice enough place for US$8 per night, and we were on the first floor – yippee, less stairs!

Nha Trang beach (with afternoon tea) One of the nicest people we met in Vietnam was the receptionist at the hotel, Anh. She was 20 and came from a village near Hue but she hardly ever got back to see her 9 siblings. Thanh Binh was a family run hotel but they employed Anh, probably because she spoke good english, and also a cleaner. If you asked any of the family anything they would run off and get Anh anytime of the day or night – she seemed to do just about everything. We felt terrible when she was woken up and came into reception in her nightie one evening, yawning away. She was genuinely delighted to meet us all though which was lovely and even though she was almost a slave she was always happy and friendly with us. When we left she said, ‘you come back to my hotel?’. She hoped that we would be happy and bring our children to Nha Trang one day, and then she said hopefully, ‘maybe I not work here then’. We got our nicest farewell from Anh and the cleaner; hugs and lots of waving as our taxi left.

Sue enjoying an ice cream on the beach

Amanda and Toni, the two English girls we’d met on the train, ended up in the hotel next door to us. Both hotels were on the main beach front road – which is a nice location, but it got incredibly noisy in the mornings as the Vietnamese headed to work at 6am, and construction work going on in a building nearby at all hours didn’t help.

We’d planned to stay in Nha Trang for several days as we’d all been missing the beach and it had been a hectic last couple of weeks and it turned out to be a nice place to spend a week. The weather wasn’t great so somedays we couldn’t make it onto the beach, but there were plenty of other things to do – like getting a roadside hair cut and ear clean. The many beach bars in Nha Trang were lovely spots to spend the evening. The first night we were there was the Full Moon and there was a party on at the Sailing Club. They lit a bonfire on the beach and we sat and watched the waves just metres away from us while listening to funky music. The full moon lit the beach up and you could dig your feet into the sand while having a drink; so relaxing, so peaceful, so perfect….

Thap Ba Hot Spring Center – so good we went twice

The Hot Spring Center in Nha Trang was a wonderful place to relax and be pampered. There is no way you can’t relax when your body is immersed in mineral spring water which is almost unbearably hot. None of this swimming lengths malarky, all you can do is lie on a float and unwind – heaven. Jacqui, Sue and I went the first time and had the full treatment. A private hot mud bath which is the consistency of melted chocolate – if only. Then we lay in the sun until the mud baked onto our skin and washed it off under a hot mineral spring water shower. We spent the rest of the day sitting in a variety of hot mineral spring water pools. The water everywhere is boiling hot, even under the waterfall, so the only way to cool down is to get out of the water. I was desperately trying to find a cold water pool to cool down in. This day of total relaxation and pampering cost just £7.50 each. The second time Richard and Amanda came too. Sue and I decided to try another treatment – the steam bath and massage. The steam bath was great but the massage was the real experience. First you strip! Then you (barely) cover your modesty with a pair of lovely shorts and a towel. Luckily we were in the same room because it was quite a nerve racking experience and I think if we’d been put in seperate rooms we’d have run off. We let out a few small screams and exclamations when the unexpected happened like joints being cricked or the masseur jumping on top of you and walking down your back. The worst and best bit was when my masseur put her hands on my head and cricked my neck, I let out an involuntary four letter exclamation which warned Sue what she could expect. We had over an hour of being pushed, pulled and pummelled – it was actually a great massage.

Mama Hanh’s Boat Trip – the original party boat

This is a must do trip in Nha Trang. There are other boats which tour the nearby islands but THIS IS THE PARTY BOAT. We had our first beer at 9.58am as we left Nha Trang Pier to the sound of Bob Marley and the music played, the alcohol flowed, yes, we had a bit of a dance on top of the boat and did lots of jumping off the boat and mucking about in the water all day. Parents – don’t worry we didn’t have too much beer, honest.

The floating bar on Mama Hanh's boat trip Jo drinking wine in the sea

After lunch one of our guides Phong, jumped into the water with his floating bar. We all jumped in after him and bobbed about on rubber rings while he dished out bottles and bottles of Vietnamese Mulberry Wine which tastes a bit like port. It’s actually not that bad and the taste improves the more you have. Aswell as all the fun we had I should say that the islands were beautiful, the weather was glorious and we got to see a floating fish farm.

National saying??

A cafe named after the ubiquitous phrase

You can’t spend long in Vietnam without hearing the phrase “Same Same, but Different” – it applies to everything. From being given a different anti-biotic to the one on the prescription, to being shown a hotel room that isn’t the one you will be staying in. It also gets used when you are booking a trip: as in “Is that a picture of the bus we will be travelling on?” (nice picture of big air-con bus), trip vendor: “Same same, but differnt” which means we’ll be on a rickety old heap of a Vietnamese micro-bus…. Often just abbreviated to “same same” – it generally means you’ll never quite get what you expected (or were told you were getting!). The cafe whose sign is pictured above was one of many places named after the phrase: and it’s not just Vietnam, we’ve now come across the phrase in Cambodia and Thailand!

Last Night Out

For our last night out in Nha Trang the four of us had arranged to meet up with Amanda in Shorty’s bar for some beer and food. So we’d all gone to use the ‘net for a while to sort out our e-mails and stuff, and I’d finished so headed over to Shorty’s.

So, a man walks into a bar….
And the standard punchline is “Ouch!”, well the same line occurs here, but it takes a bit longer and happens six times.

I got to the bar, sat down and ordered a drink. After 10 minutes or so the girls arrive, and we all order some food. As we are waiting for the food to arrive, I feel a sharp pain in my toe. After taking a look at my foot I realised that it was more than someone just knocking me with their foot – I was bleeding from the toe. I went to clean it up in the toilets, and went and sat back down where we tried to work out what had caused it. At first we thought that maybe it was a bit of loose wood on the benches I’d snagged, but then something scuttled over our feet – something small and fairly hefty. We then noticed and almost cartoon like rat hole in one of the benches….

The theory that it was a rat that had bitten me started to look increasingly likely. So what do you do when bitten by a rat in Vietnam?? Not having a working copy of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with us, but remembering that the cover just says Don’t Panic! we calmly asked the bar owner (a Brit) if he had any iodine or something else to clean my toe with. Nothing. He didn’t have any medical kit, and didn’t care either that someone had been bitten in his bar. It wasn’t like there were any other customers in the place to be scared off either.

After some debate, I went back to the internet cafe to see if I could find anything useful there – a quick search came up with nothing. So we decided to go back to the hotel and try and contact a doctor, and if that didn’t work head over to the hospital. When we got back to the hotel the receptionist, Anh, tried to contact a doctor for us, but the Doctor didn’t speak much English, and our Vietnamese is very limited! We were starting to think about just heading to the hospital when Jo remembered that the bar across the road was run by a French woman and wondered if she could help. Our luck was in – in the bar the French owner was very helpful, and she had a French friend with her who was a Red Cross Doctor – very convenient. The two of them called a Vietnamese Doctor, and came over to see me in the hotel. Once Danielle (the Red Cross Dr.) understood what had happened she got a worried look and started pacing around until the Vietnamese Dr. arrived. Once he understood what had happened it was straight into a taxi and to the hospital for us…

The hospital was grim. Very grim. Imagine M*A*S*H when they are having a bad day, and then take away the sanitising effect of US TV. Then make it worse. Danielle warned us against leaning on the walls in reception (the walls were bad – concrete re-inforcing bar showing through in most places, and pretty filthy), and after a short wait we were lead to a private room through what must have been the casualty ward, where 20 or more people were in a small area all in various stages of distress with doctors and nurses rushing about carrying trays with instruments, and dressings (new and used, very used) on them. Fortunately we weren’t in there for more than a few seconds, but it was enough. The room we were taken to was OK, it had at least had a new coat of paint sometime in the last few years, and the walls looked solid. Probably the best room in the building. The staff were all imacculately dressed tho’ – all very clean and professional looking and we were seen very quickly. After a quick inspection by a hospital doctor, I was given a rabies shot, charged US$1, and left. We went back to the hotel where Danielle and Dr. Dao (the Vietnamese Dr. Danielle had called) dressed my toe and left, promising to return in the morning.

By now it was about 11pm, and we were pretty shattered (and sober – amazing how a hospital visit clears the mind), so just crashed out. In the morning Danielle and Dr. Dao came back and re-dressed the toe, and prescribed some anti-biotics for me. Total cost for two house visits within 12 hours – US$7 – try getting that back home!

We were told that I only needed the one injection, but everything we found out said I needed a course of five or more jabs, so when we got to Ho Chi Minh I went and saw another Dr. (again French – it seems the French colonial rule of Vietnam has lead to most of the medical staff being French trained, and there are a lot of French clinics). Dr. Pin was so typically French it was almost amusing, but the smirks disappeared when she said I needed a course of four more jabs over the next three months. One there and then, two more over the next three weeks and the final one three months after the bite. So a tour of South East Asia’s medical facilities has been added to our itinerary.

So far there seem to be no ill effects from the bite, a full moon has passed and there was no urge to howl, but I do have a craving for running around in a small plastic wheel……

After the “excitement” of our last night in Nha Trang we got the train on Saturday night and headed to Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon).

Vietnam – Hanoi to Hoi An

Jan 17-27


First impressions:

We flew into Hanoi’s new airport, Noi Bai, which has no character (or Bank or ATM machine leaving us relying on US dollars to get to Hanoi – the greenback will do fine until you can get some Vietnamese Dong (20,000 to the pound making us millionaires with heavy wallets once we got some)). The drive from the airport to Hanoi had some of the most charming and interesting sights we’ve seen on our trip. So many people wearing conical hats – it must be like wearing knickers from Marks and Spencers; people working in waterlogged rice (paddy) fields, backbreaking work with only the help of a wooden plough dragged by oxen; everything (and anything – including an upside-down pig,) carried on the back of a motorbike.

First scam:

We were scammed at least once a day in Vietnam and the first was five minutes after clearing customs…

For the first time ever we were met at the airport by a man carrying a piece of card with our names on it! We assumed that Sue and Jacqui had sent a taxi as they’d arrived the day before us – that’s very nice of them, we thought. The taxi driver agreed when we asked if that was the case and said that the hotel (Classic Street in the Old Quarter) would pay – excellent. But first we had to find another person to come to the hotel with us – strange. Richard scoured the quiet airport and found a massive American, Stephen, who agreed to come with us but when we got to the hotel Stephen decided not to stay. We were rushed into the hotel and booked in, and asked to pay 10 dollars for the taxi ride – what a surprise but it was the going rate so we weren’t too bothered.

We decided to have a look around Hanoi as we weren’t meeting Sue and Jacqui until later so we set off with our trusty Lonely Planet (LP) under our arms. We were charmed – but lost. Classic Street was on the map but not on the street where it should have been. Luckily we had picked up a card in the hotel and found out that we weren’t staying in the hotel we thought we were. When we got back we found out that Sue, Jacqui (and Simon and Louise who they’d met at the airport) had been scammed by the hotel the day before. They had taken a taxi from the airport and asked to be dropped at the Star Hotel (in LP) but the taxi took them to the Classic Street where they were rushed through booking in and it wasn’t until they were wondering around Hanoi and got lost that they realised they weren’t staying at the Star Hotel!! They then emailed us to say where they were, and we all assumed that it was the Classic Street mentioned in LP. It was lucky that we did take the taxi the hotel sent for us otherwise we would have had trouble finding the right hotel as there are a number of Classic Street Hotels in Hanoi. Taxi drivers in Vietnam won’t take you where you want to go but will take you to the hotel that pays them the best commission. A good start!

Second impressions:

Hoen Kiem Lake, Hanoi Hanoi has a lot of character with busy, bustling streets and markets in the Old Quarter, a pretty peaceful oasis in Hoen Kiem Lake with its temples – and impressive monuments such as Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum – (the first and probably last embalmed communist leader we’ll see). The Thang Long Water Puppet Show was interesting – if a bit long.

Hanoi was our first encounter with rampant CD and DVD piracy – so we stocked up as much as we could: 20+ CD’s and over 30 DVDs (CDs were 50p and DVDs £1.50 a go). The DVDs were a slight worry as they listed different regions on the back, and our player only allows a limited number of changes to the region it will play, but we later found that all the discs had been stripped of any region protection so they all work fine! It’s amazing what sort of movie or music you’ll buy at those prices…

Crossing the road – can take some time. There are such a lot of motorbikes, cyclos and bicycles coming from every direction that you will never be able to see a clear path straight across the road. The only way to cross is to walk slowly across the road weaving around the traffic and remarkably as the path behind you closes back up the path before you will become clear. Once you get used to it – it’s fine – not really scary at all…. and if you are lucky you won’t be beeped too much.

You need earplugs. The Vietnamese don’t just use the horn to warn of possible danger, they use it for every and no reason. Sometimes we’ve been on buses and counted 80 honks a minute from that one bus giving us all headaches. But Hanoi is also noisy because people get up before dawn and there are public announcements and music blaring onto the streets through load speakers early every morning.

The Vietnamese are not night birds. Since we’ve been trying the bars in towns and cities of the world we had high hopes for Hanoi. It has some lovely bars and restaurants. We particularly liked Cafe 135 which was run by Ben and Sharon from Australia, sophisticated, busy, good value, great atmosphere and great food. If you want to do anything after 11pm it becomes quite difficult – the streets become deserted and most places shut. We found a couple of nice bars open after 11pm: R & R Tavern and Hanoi Pub but when we got back to the hotel just after midnight it was locked up with the shutters down. After knocking they raised the shutters enough for us to crawl in and we found that all the staff were sleeping on the reception floor and we’d woken them all up. Sorry. This happened at nearly every hotel we stayed in in Vietnam.

We were lucky enough to meet some other members of the Bale family. After having such a great time with Becky in Hong Kong we really hoped that we would meet Becky’s Mum, Barbara, and her two sisters, Nancy and Lily who live in Hanoi. After a few emails and telephone calls we caught up with them and had tea at their house the night before we left Hanoi. They have been in Hanoi for 5 years and have a lovely house. It was so nice to meet them and hear what it is like to live in Hanoi and we can understand why they enjoy living there. We wouldn’t say no to living and working there for a while.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay Halong Bay

We went on a two day trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi. The scenery was stunning and similar to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand with literally hundreds of islands but this seemed even more impressive with sheerer cliff faces, a higher density of islands, interesting caves and floating villages. We visited Hang Dau Go (Grotto of Wooden Stakes) and Thien Cung Caves where the stalagmites, stalactites and cauliflower rock formations were beautifully illuminated.

During the trip small fishing boats would moor to our boat and you could buy very fresh seafood (it was still moving). The crew of our boat would cook the crabs, huge langoustines, mussels or whatever you had bought. Louise and Jacqui bought some black pearl jewelry on the boat with pearls gathered in Halong Bay. By coincidence, one of the people on board, Silvano, was a gem trader from France and he examined the pearls to check their authenticity – they were real.

At dark we moored at Cat Ba Island and had our first terrifying experience of getting off a boat when there isn’t a sensible way off. We had to walk around the thin edges of the boat, clinging on and feeling our way along and then jump onto another boat, walk through that and then jump onto the land. I think I would have been more likely to fall in if it hadn’t been dark and I could have seen the water below me. Thankfully we didn’t have our full packs with us, just our daypacks. Cat Ba is a little fishing island that is just starting to cater to tourists. The pretty harbour was full of fishing boats. The hotel was another example of a common Vietnamese phenomenon: tall, thin hotels with no lifts. In this one we were on the 5th floor, Simon and Louise got the short straw and were on the 9th (and the staircases are not intended to be negotiated with pack on!). Here’s a picture of Richard eating chips with chopsticks.

The quietness and stillness of Halong bay and the layers of distant, shadowy islands all around gave a mysterious, almost eerie, feeling.


We took the night train from Hanoi to Hue which took 16 hours but we had a comfortable soft sleeper bed and got some sleep. General opinion was that Hue was pretty rubbish but that’s probably a bit mean. Part of the problem was the weather, it was cold and miserable and we just aren’t used to British weather anymore – I think that clouded our judgement a bit.

Music in Hue The other was that there isn’t really any nightlife although we did have a nice meal one night at Tropical Garden Restaurant. Unfortunately we had to sit inside because it was too cold to sit in the lovely garden but we had good entertainment in the form of some traditional Vietnamese music and singing.

We booked a tour through our hotel (A Dong Hotel), the staff seemed very friendly, but the tour wasn’t quite what we were promised (the tale of our time in Vietnam frankly). We had been sold a dragon boat with guide for the day to take us to Thien Mu Pagoda and some royal tombs, all fees included. As soon as we got on the boat we were perfect prey for the woman who hopped on to sell us postcards, pictures and ornaments. We had to look at every single thing. Once she had sold us enough things she hopped off. Thien Mu Pagoda was impressive and set in lovely grounds, seeing the Buddhist monks chanting was a highlight of the day. Next stop – the Tomb of Tu Duc. We got off the boat and were told that we had to pay £1.50 each to get a motorbike to the tomb which was apparently too far to walk – 6.5kms – scam. We said we’d walk anyway and we took a nice stroll past other tombs, small settlements, paddy fields, scarecrows with conical hats on, butterflies – stopping now and then to ask the way. It definitely wasn’t 6.5km. Tu Duc’s tomb is a massive complex and really nice but unfortunately like so many other places in Vietnam it costs more to take a photo or some video than it does to get in so we haven’t got any pictures.

Life on the Perfume River After that we decided not to go and visit the other tombs as they cost US$4 each to get in (not included in the tour) and we asked our ‘guide’ if he could take us somewhere for lunch. He took us to what was probably the restaurant in his village. We had to climb a muddy slope to get there and the floor was mud. They were obviously surprised to see us there – the grandmother of the house couldn’t stop staring and smiling at us. We used the LP language section to ask for 2 noodles with vegatables and 1 with chicken but they all came out the same – noodles with coriander and something which looked a bit like chicken roll! It was nice to see life on the Perfume River, many people lived on the banks of the river but a good number live on the small boats which constantly cruise up and down the river.

Hoi An

We had a scary bus ride to Hoi An around the mountains on the coast. The scenery was beautiful but as Richard said sometimes we nearly were the scenery. We sat at the front of the bus and the driver never took his hand off the loud, piercing horn – headaches and sickness all round. LP recommends you need earplugs in Vietnam – they are absolutely right but we didn’t have any. The highlight of the trip was when we stopped for a break and a school boy of 11 named Tan came to practise his English on us. He was really good and only asked for a pen when he left us which is what most of the kids want, if they aren’t after money. Someone else was asking for coins which many people collect in Vietnam as they don’t have any – all notes right down to 100 dong (0.5pence).

Hoi An harbour In Hoi An we stayed at the Hai Yen Hotel which Louise and Simon had booked for us all – a nice hotel. Hoi An, along with Hanoi, is somewhere you could stay for more than a couple of days. It has a really pretty harbour, chilled coffee shops and bars and not forgetting the great tailors to get some new clothes made which will fit you perfectly. We liked Treat’s Cafe for it’s happy hour (two vodka and tonics for 75pence) and atmosphere; Tam Tam Cafe for it’s great tuna crepes and steaks, chill out area with books and pool table; Good Morning Vietnam for good Italian food and Hai’s Scout Cafe for lattes, baguettes and cake.

We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival where, every month, they turn the lights off in the town at 7pm and have a party. The streets were lit with pretty lanterns in every colour and it was fun to sit in a bar in the dark. Families came out to enjoy the fun and games such as the ‘hit the pottery hung on a string’ game – a bit like pin the tail on the donkey where you are blindfolded and have to walk forward and try to break a bit of pottery hung in front of you with a stick. Well done Sue for managing to hit the pottery but not hard enough to break it and get the prize but Jacqui – you were a mile off!! Glad we’re on another continent otherwise we might be in trouble for that remark.

My Son

A day trip from Hoi An to see some Hindu temples of My Son, built by the Champa Kingdom between the 7th and 13th centuries. It wasn’t that great and even our guide said he thought it was the worst trip he went on!! High praise indeed.

Scam for Hoi An

We got our train tickets from a very nice helpful travel agent. When we got on the train we realised that he had charged £3.50 extra on the ticket price for each ticket. He shouldn’t have charged more than 60pence or so per ticket to cover the collection of the tickets from the train station but unfortunately we didn’t notice until we were on the train. He seemed so nice…

The 11 hour train journey took us to Nha Trang and we met Toni and Amanda in our six person hard sleeper cabin.

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