Brendon Kearns

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Tag: Travel

Phnom Penh, Kampot and Kep

We flew into Phnom Penh on the evening of 10 April, just before the Khmer New Year kicked off on the 13th. The airport was like a ghost town and after quickly obtaining our visas we hunted around for Customs to lodge our forms. Eventually we spotted the officers chilling out on a bench, shoes off, chatting. Katie waved her form to them from across the hall – ‘Put in the box!’ an officer shouted, flopping his hand dismissively.

Welcome to Cambodia!

The Royal Palace

In town festivities were already starting up. On our first night we heard singing and music coming from the National Museum so we walked over and stood in the shadow of the gate with a few tuk tuk drivers and an old lady holding a sleeping baby. Inside, drunk young guys in office attire danced awkwardly with their partners as someone played ‘Guantanamera’ (a.k.a. The One Ton Tomato song) on a keyboard.

Statue of King Norodom Sihanouk

Wat Ounalom decorated for New Year

We spent four days in Phnom Penh, which was pretty sobering. Vietnam and Laos have also dealt with war and tragedy in recent decades, but peace only came to Cambodia in the late ’90s, and you can see the effects everywhere. In the city there are orphans on the streets, people missing limbs from landmines, people begging, sex tourists with local women in tow. Amongst all this are lavish palaces and government buildings. On our second day we hired a tuk tuk and visited the Killing Fields, where we learnt that during the Khmer Rouge years one in four people here were killed. The bodies were dumped in huge unmarked pits. Pieces of clothing, bone and teeth still rise to the surface when it rains. Boia, our driver, also took us to see temples, monuments, markets and the huge developments on Diamond Island, where workers and their families live in sheds made of corrugated metal sheets while building multi-million dollar malls and condos that will house wealthy Westerners and East Asians (so the billboards say). We drove past a theatre and saw junkies sitting in circles or passed out in the slivers of shade behind the complex.

A little further up, Boia stopped in the middle of a bridge to point out a dusty village across the river. His eyes went moist as he told us it was a poor village full of workers who have to take the ferry into the city each day as most Cambodians can’t afford to live in Phnom Penh anymore. Looking around at the empty streets of new buildings baking in the sun, investment dollars never seemed so pointless.

When we asked if he has a wife and kids he responded “I have many girlfriend, but no wife,” he smiled, and repeated the old regional adage – “no money, no honey.”

At the end of the afternoon he dropped us back at the Riverfront, waved goodbye and shouted “Happy New Year” in Khmer – “Su-Sdei Ch’nam Th’mey!”

Monks in a pickup truck on their way home for the New Year

For us, Phnom Penh was a necessary stopover rather than a destination in itself. Kampot, a quiet old French outpost town a few hours’ drive away, was where we really wanted to be.

Kampot feels a little like a delapidated Luang Prabang – crumbling old buildings, piles of rubble in the street, cows grazing on empty lots, packs of hungry dogs roaming at night. It has a bit of that Wild West vibe that we came to expect from Cambodia – whether it was old guys sitting at the bar smoking hash or the ‘karaoke bars’ that double as brothels sprinkled through the side streets – but without the largescale urban grime and desperation that characterized Phnom Penh, the overall effect was much more charming.

There are a fair number of expats, or ‘Potpats’, in town. They’ve even put together a handy Survival Guide for tourists, although ‘survival’ might be an exaggeration for a sleepy town where everyone seems to get along well with both local and foreign-owned businesses sharing the benefits of increased tourism.

Kampot streets

Room at Pepper Guesthouse

Oh Neil’s Irish Pub

When we arrived we grabbed a tuk tuk to Guesthouse Street and found a $7 room at Pepper Guesthouse, run by a Khmer family. Our room was on the ground level, attached to the family’s home, and fairly basic but clean and comfortable. After settling in we walked a few blocks to the bar and restaurant strip – happy pizza places, hotel bars, Khmer restaurants and even an Irish pub serving Cambodian-brewed cider.

The horror

The following night we decided to try staying at Blissful Guesthouse next door. The room seemed a bargain at $5. However, sweating like animals under the whirring fans, listening to the buzz of exotic insects and the bad Brit-pop coming from the bar downstairs, the vibe was more Apocalypse Now than blissful.

We went to drown our sorrows at the Magic Sponge, the most popular hostel in town. After chatting to Gordon, the ageing Scottish bartender who was channelling Iggy Pop and J Mascis, we booked ourselves a room for the following night and a tour of Kampot, Kep and Rabbit Island for the following day.

Our guide, a small Khmer guy who loved to talk but never told us his name, arrived half an hour late the next morning. He explained that he would be both guide and driver as the actual driver hadn’t been seen for three days due to some wild New Year celebrations. We jumped into his mosquito-infested van and took off.

First stop was the salt mine – it looked something like the rice paddies of Vietnam but instead of being a lush green all the plots were a dirty brown, full of sea water which yields salt crystals once evaporated. The guide explained how originally workers were paid $4-6 per paddy mined but this led to parents bringing along their children to try and maximize the number of paddies they could clear. Eventually, an NGO stepped in and the pay structure was changed to one uniform rate for all workers so that children could be sent back to school.

Gone fishin’

Next we stopped in at a fishing village (which was also deserted due to the New Year) and drove on to Phnom Sorsia, a temple complex that includes two caves – Ruhng Dhumrey Saw (White Elephant Cave, named for a rock formation) and Leahng Bpodjioh (Bat Cave, named for its inhabitants). Two teenagers from a neighbouring village came along for the cave tour, one shyly practicing his English with us while the other shouted ‘Gangnam style!’, howled and eyed off the girls in the group.

New Year decorations

Big ant nest

Temple at Phnom Sorsia

View from the top

Next we drove to a pepper plantation, where the grounds had been cleared of landmines years prior so they could be put to use for farming. As we climbed out of the van we heard a crash and a child screaming after a lunging dog had knocked him out of his walker over the edge of a verandah. The mother tried to soothe the bleeding baby as we tried red and green pepper straight from the tree.

Fresh peppercorns

Our guide explained that Kampot pepper is some of the best in the world, and the most highly prized pepper is white pepper, also known as bird pepper, which has been through a bird’s digestive system before being collected, cleaned and packaged up.

On the way out of the plantation he pointed out an old train line. This was where the Khmer Rouge kidnapped three backpackers – Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet – in 1994. They were sent to work in a labour camp and then murdered when the respective governments refused to pay a ransom to the KR.

El capitan

We drove out to the pier at Kep and caught a boat over to beautiful Rabbit Island (Koh Thonsay).

Our lunch spot

The island is very undeveloped, just a short stretch of beach restaurants and simple bungalows, surrounded by jungle. We ordered some Kampot pepper squid from one of the beachside huts and spent the afternoon lazing on sunbeds, dipping in the water and drinking tabbed cans of Angkor beer. Khmer families picnicked alongside the tourists, and little kids floated happily in big rubber rings. The water only came up to waist height at 15 metres out, was a near waveless clear blue, and so warm it felt like a bath.

After a few hours we sailed back to the mainland. Our boatload included a British woman and her dog, which the Khmer kids giggled at and called ‘Kekilu’. Apparently this refers to a Khmer comedian’s song about about a dog named Kekilu and doubles as an endearing insult to anyone whining like a dog.

We drove through some side streets and past a series of burnt out and long-abandoned mansions to a beach filled with locals. Our last stop was the Kep Crab Market which, ironically, was sold out of its famous crab on account of the Khmer New Year.

Crab baskets

With no crab to be had we browsed some of the seashell-themed tchotchkes.

Brendon spotted a woman grilling rolled up palm leaves over a flame, and picked up a batch of four for 1500 riel (~40 cents). Inside was a dessert called ‘sweet cake’ made from coconut, sugar and black sesame seeds.

Fish amok from Veronica’s

Cambodian food doesn’t have the same international reputation as Thai or Vietnamese food but there are some cool national dishes. Its main claims to fame are amok, a mild curry; lok lak, pepper steak strips with eggs and potato; and stirfries using fresh strings of Kampot peppercorns. Back in town Veronica’s Kitchen near the old market did a mean fish amok, and The Rusty Keyhole’s squid with Kampot peppercorns was also excellent.

The old market, currently being restored

Fresh noodles

$2 dumpling noodle soup from Ecran

But our most exciting food discovery in Kampot wasn’t Cambodian – it was the handmade Chinese noodles and dumplings from Ecran. On top of the noodle house is a cinema where you can rent out a private room for a few dollars, choose any film you want, grab a beer and sit back and enjoy the air con.

The whole town seems hooked on Pastis, an aniseed liqueur that you mix with water and ice to create a milky looking drink. It’s a carry-over from the French presence and you can get a glass for $1.50 pretty much everywhere. We tried to embrace it but all it was really good for was getting us to drink less. We quickly switched back to 75 cent beers – old habits die hard.

Katie sneaking a beer in the shade

We spent another five days poking around town and enjoying the local shops, eateries and drinking holes. Our favourite place to stay was Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace – our room was $6 a night, nicer than any of the barang-owned places we stayed and located right above the bakery so we got to smell fresh-baked bread each morning.

We saw quite a few wedding tents set up in the streets around town – we figured everyone was trying to squeeze their nuptials in before the rainy season hit.

We also saw a few ‘swallow houses’, little sheds with a small opening for birds to fly in (see the green square with the black hole in the middle of the photo above). This is big business in town – the swallows build nests inside, which are then cut down and sold to Thailand, Malaysia and China for around $4000 per kilo. The swallows’ saliva is extracted and used in drinks and health tonics – it’s supposed to be good for asthma, skin diseases and virility. Recorded swallow calls are pumped out all day and into the night to attract the birds. Neighbours are less enthusiastic about this new business opportunity.

As the days rolled on the town filled back up with locals returning from spending the New Year with family. Dust-covered vans packed with 20+ people, roofs strapped with food, furniture, clothing, motorbikes and household goods and the back door tied closed with rope were a common sight.

We felt it was time to pack up ourselves, so we crammed into a minivan full of backpackers with a roped down back of its own and headed out towards Otres Beach.

 

Dà Lật Days

From Nha Trang we moved onto Dà Lật – a former French colonial resort town that was spared bombing during the war. It's since become a holiday destination geared primarily at Vietnamese on vacation or honeymoon. Due to its temperate climate it's known locally as the 'city of eternal spring' and is the source of most of Vietnam's flowers, wine and produce.

Our arrival coincided with the start of the rainy season- the bus pulled in late in the afternoon after a four hour ride through heavy fog and drizzle atop the surrounding mountains. We spent the ride passing by motorbike drivers in wind-blown ponchos who, with legs tucked up out of view and the visors on their helmets dropped, looked like something out of Star Wars as they glided along the mountainside.

“Normal room, normal price”

We settled into a local guesthouse situated at the bottom of a hill called Chu's House for $10 a night- we liked it so much we remained there the entirety of our stay. The staff were friendly, cleaned the room each day, and poured double sized glasses of wine at night for 25,000₫ (~$1.25) each.

The only downside was that they, like most places in Vietnam, had one soundtrack they would put on repeat for foreigners. A lot of our time was spent drinking wine while listening to covers of Simon and Garfunkel's “The Sound of Silence”, The Carpenters' “Sha La La La” or, for some reason, The Cascades' “The Rythm of The Rain” – a song neither of us had ever heard before coming to Vietnam but which followed us from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh.

At times we wondered if a salesman had come through each town and sold every business the same “Soundtrack for Tâys” to be popped on ten minutes after noticing tâys in your establishment. After a couple failed attempts at explaining that we were okay with Vietnamese music, we gave in to “Fields of Gold” or whatever mellow cheese was enqueued and tried to appreciate the intent behind the beaming smiles and knowing nods that seem to say “Hey- we know tâys, check out this sweet compilation we got just for the occasion.”

Chu's House was also close to a vegan resturant called Hoa Sen- due to the Buddhist influence, the Vietnamese eat vegan meals on certain days of the lunar cycle and Đà Lật was full of vegan resturants.

A feast's worth of food at Hoa Sen for ~200,000₫ (~$10) – eggplant fritters with tamarind sauce, lotus rice, pyramid dumplings (already eaten), fermented bean curd with braised veges and soy pieces with lemongrass and chili

A clean and herby breakfast of Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang noodle soup at Hoa Sen for 30,000₫ (~$1.50)

First eggs over easy we had seen in Southeast Asia

Aside from Hoa Sen, we became regulars at Góc Hà Thành which had the best western breakfast we've found in Southeast Asia. It's on the main backpacker strip and owned by a husband and wife who work the kitchen, wait the tables, juggle their young kids and chat with customers. The street has a strong community vibe as the husband often hangs out smoking cigarettes with the shopkeepers next door. Kids from up and down the street play on the sidewalk or loiter around different shops for amusement.

One of the best parts about the backpacker area of Đà Lật was its sparseness. There wasn't much to it except for a road that meandered up a hill. The traffic was by far slower than we were accustomed to elsewhere in Vietnam although no less dangerous- over breakfast one morning we watched a light rain lead to three guys laying their bikes down around a sharp corner and one lady driving head on into the side of a parked van.

Impatience leads to burned fingers

Apart from resturants, there were some good cafés and Vietnamese coffee to be had at about 15,000₫ (~75 cents) a cup. We liked Góc Hà Thành, Muse, and Bicycle Up Cafe best but the local chain Windmills was a good alternative for a more western style latte or an Irish coffee.

Bowls of shellfish for steaming or grilling

Like everywhere in Vietnam, Đà Lật had copious amounts of street food vendors. We happened upon the Lễ Hội Văn Hóa Miền Đông Đà Lật (Festival of Eastern Cultures) where they had closed off the center of town at night and set up market stalls and food stands along the streets with a few stages for entertainment.

Rice paper grilled over coals with quail egg, tiny shrimp, sesame seeds, green onions, and chopped chillies.

Aside from the Bánh Tráng above, we didn't try much of the street food as most contained meat and we were excited to be back in an area where it was practical to be a vegetarian. If you are in Đà Lật and looking to try what the street side can offer, we found vietnamcoracle.com had the best run down of the area.

You can put your Soilent Green fears aside

The Bành Tráng lady we visited was set up in an alleyway across from a bakery named Liên Hoa that had a wide range of baked goods, we returned a couple times for the coconut cakes at 5,000₫ (~25 cents) each.

During the day time the central market is open and sells fruit, produce, and flowers in the bottom while tailors and clothing vendors populate the upper portion.

Elsewhere in town we visited Đinh 3 (a.k.a. Palace 3)- the third residency of the former King Bảo Đại who was ousted during the Vietnam War. The decor had a sleek World War II era vibe but the form of the structure itself reminded me of the YMCA that I took karate classes in as a kid.

Seeing this kind of architecture out here was surreal as most traces of the French occupation are no longer that obvious. I recalled a scene from The Quiet American where Fowler, the aging British journalist, bets Pyle, the naïve young American, that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London but there will still be rice paddy fields, produce being carried to market on long poles, pointed hats, and boys riding water buffaloes. It indeed felt like the tide of day to day Vietnamese life left only a few uneroded oddities remaining.

From the Palace we were able to walk to Nhật Liên, an upscale vegetarian restaurant, and on to another attraction known as “Crazy House”. It was nice to have things close enough together that we could cover distances on foot instead of hailing cabs although we seemed to be the only tourists walking to destinations this far out of the city center.

One of the half finished towers at Crazy House

Still crazy after all these years

Russian girl vogueing atop Crazy House

Crazy House turned out to be an elaborate structure of concrete and rebar painted to look like a big tree house out of a 70's cartoon. It's still under construction after twenty some odd years of opening even though the proprietor is now elderly and rarely makes appearences. Like a lot of things in Đà Lật, it was set for maximum kitsch factor but ultimately felt like a narcissistic display of wealth as it failed to hold any religious or administrative purpose in the community.

Further out of town we visited Linh Phước Pagoda – it contains a massive Quan Âm (akin to The Virgin Mary), a multileveled tower of increasingly celestial Buddhas and a main pagoda that contains a shrine area dedicated to its founder.

Interior of the tower

The elaborate designs on the buildings are constructed from fragments of broken pottery. At the base of the main tower is a large bell on which people stick pieces of paper with handwritten wishes before sending a hanging wooden ram into the side. The operation was overseen by an old nun who, during our descent from the tower, motioned that she wanted to lock us in during her lunch break. We were under the impression that monks aren't supposed to have physical contact with the opposite sex, but she had no problem poking and prodding me in the gut for a few laughs.

Pigsy

Katie liked the statues of characters from the TV show Monkey Magic that had been hidden away in the parking lot behind the main pagoda.

In contrast, we later visited Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm which was a much more somber complex housing a sect of Zen monks.

Bodhidharma with his iconic beard, bug eyes and shoe on a stick

We found this temple interesting for its Bodhidharma-centric imagery and well groomed grounds. If Linh Phước was visually akin to a Catholic cathedral then Trúc Lâm was more a Puritian chapel with its plain and simple style. Likewise, the monks appeared much more serious as they stood and stared silently within temples, tapping the side of a small metal bowl to release a reverb upon each person's entry.

The ride out to the temple can be done via taxi or cool gondola ride that carries you over the pine forests and provides a view of the surrounding greenhouses.

View from the gondola

Back in town, we took a walk one day around Lake Hố Xuân Hương and out to Đà Lật Flower Park.

The park is full of flower beds and dotted with gazebos, swing sets, benches, and statues of characters from western fairy tales and Vietnamese folk stories. Up on a hill to one side of the park are rows of greenhouses selling shrubs, flowers and small trees- adjacent are hedges trimmed into animals around pieces of modern art.

In the end, we were in Đà Lật for sixteen days total but only saw a subset of everything there is to do in the area. We never took up one of the numerous Easy Rider guys who constantly called to us, but in a way that was the best part – for the first time in Vietnam they were the only guys around shouting at us. And they were actually cool guys who offered a real service – for a small fee they'll ride you all through the mountains, over to outlying villages, lakes, vistas – whatever you want on the back of a chopper.

Dollar for dollar Đà Lật was the best place we've been and we'd recommend it to anyone looking for a cheap place to retreat for awhile.

How cheap is cheap? To make things more concrete, I tracked some daily costs as follows:

 

Typical Tourist Day

Breakfast: 80,000₫ @ Bicycle Cafe – Two Viet style coffees with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng), one weird juice drink we thought was a breakfast item, and a tomato and cheese omelette with a baguette

Taxi to Tourist Attraction #1 “Crazy House”: 40,000₫ with tip

Entrance Fee to “Crazy House”: 80,000₫ (40,000₫ each)

Lunch: 153,000₫ @ Nhật Liên – Braised Malaysian style spicy tofu, sautéed spinach with mushrooms, spring rolls, free tea, a bottle of water, and steamed white rice

Entrance Fee at Tourist Attraction #2 “Palace 3”: 30,000₫ (15,000₫ each)

Taxi to Lake Hố Xuân Hương: 35,000₫ with tip

Drinks: 70,000₫ @ Nhà Hàng Thủy Tạ – Two glasses of local wine by the side of the lake

Afternoon Coffee: 64,000₫ @ Windmills Cafe – Two Western style lattes

Dinner: 220,000₫ with tip @ Bingo Pizza – One large vegetarian pizza with jalapeños added, two cokes and a soda water

Bottled Water: 10,000₫ @ convenience store – 1.5 liters of local mineral water for back at the room

Accommodation: 210,000₫ @ Chu's House – Basic room with double bed, private bathroom with hot water, and a window with low street noise

Total: 992,000₫ = ~$47 USD (~$50 AUD)

 

That comes out to about $23.50 USD (~$25 AUD) per person for a pretty packed day of checking out tourist attractions and eating a couple big meals.

But that's not everyday, since we often like to alternate between chilling out and venturing out, so if you were to take away the cab fares and entrance fees the new total would be 807,000₫ or ~$38 USD (~$40.75 AUD) which equates to roughly $19 USD (~$20 AUD) per person.

If you really wanted to take it one further and cut out luxuries like the coffee and alcohol it would drop down to 643,000₫ or ~$30 USD (~$32.50 AUD) which equates to roughly $15 USD (~$16 AUD) per person.

This is in keeping with another day I recorded:

Simple Long Term Traveller Day:

Brunch: 138,000₫ with tip @ Góc Hà Thành – Two Viet style coffees with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng), two omelets with French toast and fruit

Afternoon Coffee: 64,000₫ @ Windmills – Two western style lattes

Dinner: 201,000₫ @ Hoa Sen – Two pyramid cakes, a plate of fried eggplant, lotus fried rice, fermented soybeans with braised vegetables and lemon grass chill fried gluten pieces with a plate of fresh herbs

Bottled Water: 10,000₫ @ convenience store – 1.5 liters of local mineral water for back at the room

Accommodation: 210,000₫ @ Chu's House – Basic room with double bed, private bathroom with hot water, and a window with low street noise

Total: 623,000₫ = ~$29.50 USD (~$31.50 AUD)

 

If you then wanted to go even further, you could eat twice a day while regulating yourself to street food and local eateries (putting your meals in the 40,000-60,000₫ range), skip the tourist attractions, haggle your way into a room for 170,000₫ a night and live on roughly 300,000₫ per day; divide that by two and you're looking at about $7 or $8 per person.

Keep in mind that this is for two people sharing accommodation costs- it might run you a few bucks more a day if you're on your own depending on if you want a separate room or are just going for dorm beds at hostels.

There were days where we'd wake up late, get a bowl of pho for lunch, eat at the markets for dinner, maybe get a coffee in between and wouldn't spend much more than $20 all day with nothing to do but read, take a walk through some temples, snap a few photos, do a little bit of life planning or listen to a podcast while playing cards. Not exactly nonstop travel adventure- but for two people in their early 30's, it's nice to have a break and regroup before jumping back into workaday life.

 

 

Đà Nẵng, Hội An and Nha Trang

We took the next stretch of the Reunification Express from Đồng Hới to Đà Nẵng. We're getting more comfortable with doing our own dirty work, so on boarding we motioned to the guy chilling in our seats to hop up.


Đồng Hới station early in the morning

This was by far the prettiest train trip we've done in Vietnam. The track goes along the coast so you get a passing view of fishing villages and deserted beaches edged with trees. You can buy pretty decent food on the journey too – we picked up some tofu in tomato sauce and a giant disc of addictive local peanut brittle stuck on top of a rice cracker (called kẹo đậu phộng), put in our earphones to drown out the pop music on the overhead TV, played peek-a-boo with the little boy in the seat in front of us, and enjoyed the ride.

Đà Nẵng is Vietnam's third-largest city and, like most of Vietnam, is under major development – skyscrapers and apartments are flying up all over town, and the coastline is filling with resorts. It's also the gateway to Hội An, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Vietnam's tailoring Mecca.

Enjoy Hội An

We'd heard a lot about Hội An's chilled out riverside atmosphere and its famous lanterns so we headed straight there instead of hanging around Đà Nẵng, despite our taxi driver's attempts to take us to a stone carving village, a pagoda, his sister's jewellery shop and the ruins at Mỹ Sơn before dropping us on the hotel strip. We walked around looking for a decent room. In front of a skeevy looking backpackers' hostel we got talking to two Australian guys who were eating tiny snails out of a bag using a long skewer (this is a common pastime in Hội An). 'How are the rooms?' we asked. 'Well, the door closes…', one guy replied. At the next guesthouse the only available room was what looked like a converted birdhouse on the roof.

Eventually we settled at Hội Phổ Hotel and headed out to get acquainted with the town. We immediately loved the pedestrian-only areas and the well-preserved old buildings. We checked out the riverside, fought off offers for boat cruises, grabbed a cheap dinner then stopped in for a terrible cocktail before hitting the sack.

Our festive hotel room at Hội Phổ Hotel

Stepping outside the next morning the famed old world charm was overridden by the stronger sense of desperation coming from all the people who had moved to Hội An to try to get ahead. Shouts followed us down the streets – 'Hello! Where you from? Where you going? You want a suit? Shirt? Dress? Come into my shop please!' Apparently the number of tailors in town has increased from around 140 in the early 2000s to over 600 these days, and there are not enough tourists to go round. There's an almost mafia vibe to it all, with the hotels trying to get you to use a particular tailor so they can collect a commission, and the tailors interrogating you about who sent you and what tailors other hotels had recommended – even the cab drivers are in on it.

The night prior we had agreed to a $15 room after having no luck finding something decent in the $10 range. We offered to stay for four nights if they were willing to drop the price down to $12 as the place appeared to have some empty rooms – they were cool with us staying one night but when it became clear to that we wouldn't be going to Kimmy, their recommended tailor, or booking any package tours, their friendliness cooled and the lady behind the desk picked up the telephone, pretended to speak to someone, and informed us they were fully booked the following night.

We packed up our stuff and started doing the rounds again – we ended up down the road at Hop Yen Hotel. They were out of $10 doubles but we snagged the classiest room in the building for $13. Check out the totally rad feature tile.

With a few sprays of DEET around the doorframe it felt just like home

If that seems like a lot of effort for what ended up only being a few bucks difference, it was. Since we're traveling long term, we try to stick to our guns on keeping accommodation costs consistently low. This is especially true when we're unsure of how long we'll be in an area – switching guesthouses frequently can knock out a couple of mornings but a few dollars difference a night multiplied can quickly add up to what could have been another night's stay. In this case, we only stayed in Hội An for five nights so it would have made more sense to stick with a $15 room as we lost a morning waiting around until check out time to pop our heads into different places to see what was available and ended up only saving 6 bucks in the long run. It's always a fine line when it comes to time versus money.

We spent the rest of the day checking out a few historical sites – Hội An has a number of museums, assembly halls, temples and preserved homes of notable local figures, and for 120,000đ you can visit five of them. Our favourites were the Cantonese Assembly Hall with its fountains, gardens and shrines, and the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in the 16th or 17th century when there was a big Japanese settlement in town.

Cantonese Assembly Hall gate

It was just after Tết when we visited so the altars in the Cantonese Assembly Hall were laden with incense sticks, different food offerings and flowers. Big coils of incense hung from the ceiling.

Dog god by the entrance to the Japanese Covered Bridge – the other entrance contained a similar statue of a monkey god. In the center of the bridge is a small altar to Bắc Đế Trấn Võ, the Vietnamese god of weather, who we thought might be the same as the Chinese Taoist deity Xuan Wu.

Detail from the Covered Bridge

The real highlight for us, though, was the food. Vietnamese food is a lot more regional than we knew before arriving. Every region – north, south and central – has its own cooking styles and some cities also have their own particular specialties. The food in Hội An was a lot lighter and more varied than the meat-and-rice/noodle combinations up north. Being beside the river means lots of fresh seafood (Katie's been on a steady downward slide from vegetarian to a vegaquarian who occasionally gives up and eats meat) and one of the major central and southern Vietnamese dishes is bánh xèo (crispy pancake), a favourite Vietnamese food from home. As well as the ubiquitous phơ, there were a bunch of different noodle soups to try – cau lầo (vege version included crispy tofu, vegetables, fat udon-style noodles, a little broth, bean sprouts and fresh lettuce and herbs, with croutons on top), bún bò Huế (spicy Huế-style noodle soup) and mì quảng seemed to be the most popular. White rose dumplings – steamed dumplings stuffed with prawns – and duck spring rolls were two other notable local dishes.

One of many crispy pancakes consumed

Mì quảng (rice flour noodles in pork and shrimp broth, topped with pork and shrimp, quail eggs and herbs) from Streets Restaurant

20,000đ (~$1) vegetable phơ from Restaurant Như Ngọc, the food stand across from our hotel

Tofu, prawn and lotus flower salad from Fusion Cafe

There are a number of shops and eateries in Hội An that focus on providing work and training opportunities for people who have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged, which was really cool to see. We liked Streets Restaurant and the Reaching Out Tea House, a silent tea house run by people with hearing impairments. You fill out a paper form with your order and you can talk to the staff using little wooden blocks that say 'Thank you', 'Water' etc. or by writing them notes.

The teas, coffees and biscuits on offer were amazing, as was the tableware, which is all designed and produced by artisans with disabilities. And after a few days of being shouted at by tailors the silence was very welcome!

We did end up getting some clothes made by a tailor called Miss Forget-Me-Not. We brought some favourite clothing items along and she and her staff copied the patterns for us and ran up two pairs of linen pants, two blouses, a shirt and a skirt in the space of 24 hours.

After a few days we were keen to get to the beach, so we headed out of town. In hindsight, we probably should have stayed in Đà Nẵng and just done a day or two in Hội An – driving back to Đà Nẵng station the city seemed a bit more chilled out, the beach looked beautiful and more suited to swimming than the choppy beaches in Hội An, and there wasn't a tailor or lantern in sight.

Waiting room at Đà Nẵng Station

Our next destination was Nha Trang, a beachside town about halfway down the Vietnamese coast. It's a fun place to chill out and re-up on Vitamin D. There's not a huge amount to do except drink coffee, relax on the beach, hit the bars and enjoy a big dinner.


Designer dogs

Nha Trang is by far the most touristy and developed place we've been in South-East Asia, which has its pluses and its minuses. Everything is very easy – all the locals speak English, the streets are relatively clean, there's restaurants galore, a KFC, outlet stores (with western sizes), a massive shopping mall with a cinema and rooftop bar, and all the seedy massage parlours your leathery old heart desires. They even have a brewhouse that produces its own craft beers. But it also makes the place very generic – you end up feeling like you could be anywhere in the world, from the Gold Coast to Kuta to Cancun. The legions of glammed up Russian tourists only added to the strange sense of place – there are three direct flights from Moscow to Nha Trang each day and all the shops have signage and menus in Russian as well as English.

We got to talking with a local at a coffee shop who was afraid that the mass influx from Moscow was ramping up property development while driving up prices in what he feared was a bubble that could pop as soon as it becomes too expensive for the average Russian tourist.

Moloko for sale at the local supermarket

Despite how touristy it is, everything is still cheap. We stayed at Saint Paul Hotel and had a spotlessly clean air-conditioned room with a window, cable TV (we enjoyed watching The Matrix with Vietnamese subtitles – 'Tam biệt, Anh Anderson!') and a fridge, 3 mins from the beach, for between $12 and $14 a night. You can get top-notch breakfast for two at Le Petit Bistro for 110,000đ (~$5.40), and Sydney-standard lattes at Cuppa for 40,000đ (~$2).

Lying on the beach costs nothing, unless you decide you want the 'VIP' treatment, which gets you a sun bed, fluffy towel and access to a shower and pool for 100,000đ (~$5) a day. We never went for that deal, but occasionally rented out a couple chairs with an umbrella for 40,000đ (~$2).

Nha Trang beach

Entrance to Long Sơn Pagoda

To break up the hedonism we caught a green cab out to Long Sơn Pagoda. Unlike at other religious sites we've visited, we didn't see any monks around except the one who was running the attached restaurant. We didn't see any locals stopping by to pay respects either and it had the vibe of a once active temple turned tourist trap.

It was more intense than expected as children, the elderly and people with disabilities begged along the stairways, others installed themselves at the entrances to each section and asked for payment to come in (there is no entry fee), a guy with neck tatts gave us incense sticks (and then demanded 50,000đ) and we had to waive off young people who tried to give us uninvited 'tours' (i.e follow you while talking and then ask for money) – the only sacrilege appeared to be putting money into the official donation box.

Buddha at Long Sơn

Next we drove to Po Nagar Cham Towers, the ruins of a Hindu temple built by the Cham who once ruled part of southern Vietnam. Po Nagar is run like a well-oiled machine in comparison – entry is ticketed, the grounds are manicured and professional guides can be hired for an extra 22,000đ. Proper dress is enforced – those who wanted to take glamour shots in their short shorts and strappy tops were dismayed when staff issued them with dour grey monk robes to cover themselves. The towers were cool to check out, but the ruins at Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand are pretty hard to beat.

Cham towers

Nha Trang as seen from Po Nagar

The food in the touristy area of Nha Trang wasn't exactly exotic but there were plenty of good cheap restaurants serving Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Russian, Spanish and standard western pub food. Our favourite places were Yen, Lanterns and Ganesh Indian Restaurant (the only place we've found in Southeast Asia that actually put paneer in their palak paneer).

Best chicken phơ from Yen

Seafood paella, glass of sangria and salad for 6 bucks from La Mancha

After a week and some change it felt like time to move on. We went down to the Phuong Trang bus station and bought a 145,000đ ticket to Dà Lật. Back in Hanoi we'd had a few beers with a Canadian woman who had loved Luang Prabang as much as we did – when we asked her what her favourite Vietnamese city was, she answered without hesitating: 'Dà Lật!' Sold.

 

Ninh Bình and Đồng Hới

We wanted to get out of the city and see more of rural Vietnam so we made a side-trip from Hanoi to Ninh Bình with a guide, Mu, and a local driver, Vuong, to show us around. We drove two hours south and stopped in Vân Long (one of the many places in Vietnam that is referred to as 'Halong Bay on land') where we took a boat trip around some limestone cliffs and through a small cave. We could hear birds and gibbons in the forest, but they stayed hidden as it was a cool drizzly day.

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Mu brought us out here to show us a site we might not otherwise see – Vân Long is less popular with westerners (who mostly do trips out to Tam Cốc) but quite popular with Chinese tourists, who come to visit the nearby temple.

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Looking up from inside a limestone cave

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Rower taking us around

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We stopped at a local restaurant for a massive lunch. We read later that in Vietnam you should always leave some food on your plate to show that you are full and satisfied with what your host has provided – perhaps ordering a few extra dishes is the only way to ensure this when eating with westerners! Mu and Vuong joked about serving us dog – which they claimed tasted like goat – another regional delicacy. We passed numerous places advertising thịt chó and thịt mèo (“meat meow”) on the drive.

 

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Next we walked through Thung Nắng village, which is located among some very impressive rock formations. We saw a guy with a cage on his bike actually buying a dog for a wedding banquet, which gave a new meaning to the phrase “Going to see a man about a dog”… Being an animal-lover in Vietnam is hard.

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Our next stop was Yên Mô village, where we'd be staying for the night. Mu took us to see a woman making rice noodles – she soaks the grains of rice, runs them through a hand-operated machine and then drains them overnight to sell at market early the next morning. She makes about 100,000 dong per day, which adds up to less than $2000 a year. But that's a pretty decent income in this village, where people grow nearly all their own food.

After that we went to the local market. Brendon had to keep his head low to stay under the tarp that covered the walkways. We received a lot of stares from locals, along with some obligatory “Hello!”s. One man started shouting at us and Mu translated it as “I would like to say a lot of things to you, but I don't know how!”

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The next day Mu took us for a walk through the fields of peanuts, rice, cabbage, lettuce and morning glory.

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Workers were out tending their crops in the rain among the graves of their ancestors.

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We visited Bích Động Pagoda, which is built on a cliff filled with caverns and caves used as hideouts during wars with China and America. We saw some deep chasms covered in nets into which people had thrown money. We asked Mu what it meant and she explained that during the wars there were so many casualties that the dead could not all be buried. Bodies had to be thrown down into the chasms, and people leave money so that these dead soldiers can have a good life in the spirit world.

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We stopped in for tea with an older man who works at the pagoda as a guide and musician. He offered Brendon a hit of tobacco from a porcelain jar that acted like a water pipe and showed us some traditional instruments – the Vietnamese cello, the Vietnamese violin and the Vietnamese electric guitar, complete with whammy bar. A large group of drunk guys joined us and took turns singing while the old man played and everyone clapped.

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Brendon eating cơm cháy

We took a rowboat around the lake, snacked on cơm cháy chà bông (big puffed rice crackers with pork floss) and chatted to Mu. She's an ethnic Hmong from Sapa, but moved to Hanoi and now works 28 days out of the month. The rest of her family still lives in the remote village she was born in and it sounded like she was the main income earner.

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Mu on her phone

She explained how back in her village girls are often married off early through a “kidnapping” tradition whereby during the Tet celebration a boy will kidnap a girl and bring her to live with his family. That night, the girl's family receives a water buffalo horn full of rice whiskey, which they drink if they approve of the proposed marriage or hold off on drinking if they want to give the girl a chance to turn down the offer. A bride price is eventually worked out and, once married, the girl lives with and works for the husband's family.

Mu explained how she artfully dodged all of this by staying home during the New Year celebrations, learning both English and Vietnamese, training to be a guide in her early teens and moving away from home, although she still has some concerns about losing autonomy if she gets married.

It was interesting hearing how she is trying to reconcile her lifestyle with the older generation's ideas and expectations. She tried giving her parents a mobile phone to stay in touch but only her little sister knows how to use it, she has a 90-year-old grandmother who loves to complain about the food, and a father who has health issues but won't stop drinking his rice whiskey – yep, people are people wherever we go.

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We saw a few different methods for catching fish and marine life – this was a trap Mu pulled up for us to take a look. There were also guys who used electricity to stun the fish under the weeds then scoop them into the boat.

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Roadside coconut debris

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Country roads

We jumped ashore in Tràng An village and stopped for lunch at a fisherman's house. Then Mu pulled out three rusty mountain bikes and we set off down some bumpy country roads for a ride in the rain. After about 20 minutes of Katie's granny-style riding, locked gears and seats that fell down, we checked to see if Mu wouldn't mind cutting down the three hours she'd set aside for the ride to maybe an hour and a half. As a shortcut, she took us down the side of a four lane highway. The trick was to not venture too far to the right because it was all slick mud on top of the pavement but at the same time you didn't want to drift too far left into the wild Vietnamese traffic. To add to the fun, we rode past a very popular temple where we had to navigate through crowds of pedestrians shouting “Hello!” and “Tây! Tây! Tây!” Once out of the fray we biked past a few more families parking their vehicles – parents stopped and pointed us out to the children, who gave us wide-eyed stares and waves.

We finally got off the highway and rounded a corner when a group of roadside workers erupted in laughter. Mu said they wanted to know if Brendon would like to take over some shoveling. A lady drove by on a scooter, pointing and shouting. Mu's translation: “Isn't your other leg cold?” Admittedly we may have looked a little ridiculous – we had both rolled up our right pant legs to avoid getting them caught in the gears.

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Fisherman's backyard

We biked back to the fisherman's house for a cup of tea before piling back into the car for the ride home.

Once back in Hanoi we celebrated our last night in town with a few glasses of wine and a pizza – so Vietnamese!

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The next night we boarded the train to Đồng Hới. We'd booked two bunks in a four-bunk sleeper for a journey of about 11 hours.

When we got to our cabin there were eight people already sitting on the two lower bunks. We looked at each other, confused, until a railway employee walked over and spoke to the people harshly in Vietnamese. Four people moved off Brendon's bed and all eight now squeezed onto the one unclaimed lower bunk. Katie climbed onto the top bunk and Brendon sat below trying to motion to the Vietnamese passengers that it was okay if they wanted to go back to sitting on the edge of his bed.

A minute later the railway guy popped back into the cabin and looked at us, rubbing his fingers together. Uhhh? 'Money!' exclaimed the man. 'Money? How much?' '50,000.' Brendon pulled out his cash and handed it over. The man looked up at Katie and pointed. 'Her too? Ối giời ơi!' The man smacked Brendon in the shoulder while the other passengers giggled. Katie fumbled around for her 50,000. Just then the owners of the other two bunks walked in – the man evicted the eight people from the cabin and the process repeated.

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The owners of the other two bunks were Brendan and Tiffany, long-term travellers (and bloggers) from Canada and Switzerland respectively. We chatted for a while then curled up in our comfy bunks and passed out.

We arrived in Đồng Hới at around 7am and got a lift to Phong Nha Farmstay. It's not actually a farm, but it's out in the country and surrounded by rice paddy fields. The farmstay runs a lot of different tours and it's a good base from which to explore the local national parks and cave networks, if you're into that sort of thing.

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On Day 3 we did the most popular tour out to Kẻ Bàng National Park. The day started with a walk through Paradise Cave, a large cave equipped with walkways, good lighting, handrails and rubbish bins.

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Next we stopped for lunch, put on our swimmers and kayaked across a beautiful blue lake to another cave, where we'd been told we could swim.

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This cave was somewhat more rustic than Paradise Cave – the pebbly floor soon turned to mud as our guide Hung led us further and further in. The path became so muddy that you had to hold onto the walls to keep from slipping in the knee-deep muck – unfortunately the walls were also made of mud. Huge boulders had to be clambered over, at great risk to the almost bare arses of all the girls in the group. We were all filthy and sweating profusely by the time we got to a clearing. Was this the swimming hole? No. It was a big puddle of mud. Hung laughed. Some of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the group gleefully threw themselves into the puddle, while the older, crabbier contingent looked at Hung like we were ready to drown him in it.

We turned back the way we had come, sliding down mounds of mud like they were slippery dips. Eventually we turned down a passageway and came out at a big pool of clear water. We waded in and floated around, cooling and cleaning ourselves off. Afterwards we kayaked back, had a few shots of Vietnamese rum and headed back to the farmstay.

That was about enough excitement for us!

Click the sound button to hear a rendition of “In Tall Buildings”

We spent some time chilling with Heidi and Isaac, a couple from Washington State who were playing hostels and guesthouses to cover their accommodation.

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The rest of our time at the farmstay was spent unwinding from Hanoi with a little reading, writing and relaxing among the rice paddies.

 

Christmas and the New Year in Pai

Posted by Katie

The one firm plan we had in place before leaving the states was to spend Christmas and the New Year in Pai, in the north of Thailand. Neither of us are into Christmas so we wanted somewhere we could relax, read books, play cards, drink beer, go for walks and lie around in a hammock. Pai was perfect for all of these things.

We got into town on the 23rd of December after a long and winding minibus trip from Chiang Mai. The road to Pai has 472 hairpin curves so we chose the minivan option as apparently at least one person per coach trip will puke. We all made it intact. We weren’t sure where our accommodation was but a crafty songthaew driver snapped us up and drove us there for 150 baht. When we arrived 3 minutes down the road the owner of our guesthouse laughed and told us that was the highest price he’d ever heard of someone paying. But, as the driver explained to us in his otherwise broken English, ‘Gasoline is expensive.’ Indeed.

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First impressions of Ing Doi House

Jake, who owns Ing Doi House with his wife Mink, showed us to our bungalow, which sat at the edge of a duck pond filled with lotuses. Its front door looked out over the mountains and palms. On the veranda was a hammock and a comfy chair for reading.

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Sunset from the verandah

The guesthouse had a common area where you could meet other people and get food and drinks. For Christmas, Jake and Mink organised a pot luck. Everyone brought some food or booze from town and Mink cooked up more food for everyone to share. We contributed a bottle of Bacardi – nothing says Christmas like hard liquor. We spent the day hanging out and getting to know the other guests. There was Ian from Birmingham, an avid traveller who was revisiting Pai after an absence of 12 years. There was Max, a young mustachioed guy from Colorado who had been living in Hollywood before running away to Thailand to live with a hill tribe for a month to get over it. There was David, a witty west coast American looking for love. There were Lisa and Rob, young professionals from San Francisco who were excited about their two-week vacation until they heard how long everyone else was travelling for. There was Julie from Chicago, who had been hanging out in Pai for a few weeks already. (I was surprised by how many Americans we met actually, given that when Brendon and I told people in America about our plans most of them looked at us like we were crazy.) We ate and drank and then headed to the night market with David, Lisa and Rob for more eating. In a way it was like any other Christmas, but with strangers and palm trees.

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Christmas festivities

Ing Doi House is a ten-minute walk from the town centre so we were away from traffic and other people but close enough to walk in any time we felt inclined. We loved the night markets, which sold loads of food, souvenirs, clothing and tea in bamboo cups. We loved the all the different places to eat, especially Good Life and The Thai Kebab (see food post). We also loved the bars, which at last were completely free of sleazy white dudes! We checked out a western bar with David and new arrival Derrick, a quiet Austrian who was working on a book. All the staff wore cowboy hats and checked shirts and we drank far too many happy hour gin fizzes.

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Night markets

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Inside Good Life tea house

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Fire pit at Ting Tong Bar

We spent the week between Christmas and the New Year chilling out, with nothing more pressing to worry about than what we would eat, where we would go for a beer, and whose turn it was in Gin Rummy.

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On the 30th of December things started hotting up – Thai reggae star T-Bone was coming to Pai. There were traffic jams as Toyota Hiluxes piled high with young Thais pulled into town. The fields by the river became crowded with tents. Stalls selling fireworks popped up along the streets. We listened to T-Bone’s performance from the safety of our bungalow – his set consisted of lots of Bob Marley covers and shouts of ‘Rub-a-dub style!’.

New Year’s Eve was even crazier. Excited young people couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin and started setting off fireworks around 10am. Brendon and I decided to hike up a mountain to escape and see the white Buddha. We passed farms where families were haying the fields, we saw buffalo with birds sitting on their backs.

Our walk

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We walked along the road to the temple and then climbed the gigantic staircase up the mountain to the Buddha. He was still under construction – apparently the white is just an undercoat and he’ll eventually be painted gold. I liked him white – at night you could see him shining softly among the trees.

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View over Pai

Back at Ing Doi, Jake and Mink had organised a New Year’s Eve party. There was a pot luck, and each person was to bring a 100 baht gift – in exchange they would receive a gift. Brendon and I found a ‘mountain village version’ Rubik’s cube and wrapped it up to go into the draw. The party began at 5:33. We chilled with fellow ‘Strayans Martha and Rees. In the back of the common area a series of mosquito nets had been tied together and filled with balloons. Mink jumped onto a makeshift stage and started shouting and excitedly waving a large stick around like a sword. She called out each of our names and sent us into the net with the stick to pop a balloon. Inside each balloon was a number that corresponded to the gift we were to receive. Jake and Mink’s son Pansa got the Rubik’s cube.

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Mink

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Ian goes in; Pansa in front testing out Rees’s gift

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In the net

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David and his gift

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The unwrapping! I got a scarf, which has been pretty handy since it’s been freezing in Luang Prabang

From about 9pm the skies were filled with hundreds of lanterns (khom loi) made of rice paper, with a candle and sometimes a firework burning in the bottom. It was amazing to see – it looked both festive and ominous, like a meteor shower or alien invasion. I could see why the local farmers had been so keen to hay their fields that day – a smoldering lantern falling on your dry grass could undo a lot of hard work. We hung out by the campfire for the midnight fireworks then crashed out.

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Revellers getting ready to launch a lantern

Getting into the spirit

The next morning we ventured out to survey the damage. The fields, streets and river were littered with the burnt out remains of the lanterns. The tents by the river were packed up, the Hiluxes were heading out of town. We went for dinner with Martha and Rees at a seriously local place where the waitstaff ignored us in the hope that we’d go away. We got a couple of serves of khao soi and green papaya salad by pointing vigorously at the chef, then managed to nab a menu and ordered ‘noodles with tomato sauce’ as I figured it would be vego. When the noodles came they contained dark red wobbly cubes of… congealed blood. Mm. Call me crazy, but I probably would have put that in the description.

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Rees & Martha

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The streets were quiet again

We kicked around the night markets one last time. Brendon and I stopped in for a goodbye beer at our favourite place ‘purple bar’ (it didn’t have a name that we could see). The lady there knew us and always said hi whenever we walked by. On this particular evening she was super excited because T-Bone had stopped in for a bevvy with his entourage. She shyly pointed him out to us and grabbed a photo with him before he sped off on his motorbike with a pretty lady on the back.

Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai

We left Bangkok 25 days ago and have made our way north through Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and to Pai. From there we double backed to Chiang Mai and went east to Chiang Khong where Thailand borders with Laos. We crossed the border into Houay Xia and the took a slow boat to Luang Prabang with a short night’s stop over in Pak Beng. For the sake of keeping this entry brief, I’ll only go as far as our first stay in Chiang Mai.

While Bangkok felt much more like a Sydney or New York, with a large scale infrastructure- Chiang Mai (at least the old city) felt much more like a Melbourne without many sky scrapers but lots of soi alleyways that are full of cafés, bars, restaurants and guest houses. It also seems to have a much more concentrated population of western tourists than I’ve seen previous.

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Soccer field between Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok

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Sunflower fields between Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok

Arriving in Chiang Mai felt like a big change from both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai which were smaller towns built around specific historical sites full of temple wats and Buddha statues. Likewise, the western populations were smaller with less bars and establishments catering to the tourist trade. The prices were noticibly cheaper- beers in both places were around 60 baht (~$2) for a large bottle of beer (~21oz or 630ml) at a bar while in Chiang Mai it can be as high as 120 baht (~$4). I’m assuming this is due to more bars in Chiang Mai that cater specifically to westerners with money while bars in smaller towns might serve both Thais and westerners but then again whenever Katie and I tried to find a bar specifically aimed at Thais we were unable in either Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, leaving me wondering if most Thais drink at home with family and friends.

We found one exception the other night when we met up with a couple from Portland, Oregon named Joey and Jeanne who we had met previously at our guesthouse back in Sukhothai. We had run into them on the street in Chiang Mai and that evening, hailed a songthaew to head out to Anchan, a vegetarian restaurant out of the old city on Nimmanheiman Road.

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Joey

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Jeanne

After dinner we went to a bar called The Beer Box. We chose it because it was an open air bar with Katie’s favorite beer, Hitachino Nest White Ale, on tap. We sat out on their patio while Joey told us stories about his 3 months living in Cambodia where he was installing water filters as part of his grad work and gave us general travel advice over a bowl of prawn chips. Our server was Thai but spoke fluent English- she turned out to be a co-owner who grew up in Colorado and moved back two years ago. As we wandered around the area the change from the old city felt drastic- the younger Thais looked like they could be any college kid in the states, there was a distinct lack of sexpats and I momentarily felt like I could have been back in Allston or Cambridge on a summer night.

Being back in a city had its ups and downs- it’s nice to get a decent cup of coffee, stock up on travel supplies at a modern mall, eat at vegetarian restaurants or get a craft beer on tap at half the price of back home. At the same time, cities come with a higher concentration of westerners and everything that comes with it- I’m convinced that the greatest danger to my health in Chiang Mai were westerners on motorbikes who don’t seem to be able to fall into the rhythm of traffic the way in which Thais do, it’s as if they can’t tell when to speed up versus when to be patient- or that they lack jai yen (“cool heart”) as it was described to me by another traveller.

The more I talk to other travelers the more apparent it is that our experience contains a lot of the common annoyances of hanging out in Thailand. In Chiang Mai, we had been staying near Loi Khro Road. Up and down the street there are bars, cafés and massage parlors- one of the hardest things we found when looking for a bar was trying to find one that didn’t have Thai prostitutes inside. It’s a surreal experience to walk down a street where you have entire families with kids going out for a French meal or on their way to the night markets right alongside theme bars where white dudes are picking up Thai girls often half their age and a third of their size.

When I was back in Bangkok I saw a sign on Soi 55 off Sukhumvit for Thai language intensives and I’ve been kicking myself since for not taking them up on it as the most difficult aspect of the trip is my lack of language skills- it makes it hard to have an interaction with a person that isn’t strictly transactional.

While we didn’t do any language courses, we did manage to schedule in a cooking class at a single room restaurant named Bamboo Bee that specializes in vegetarian food. The place is ran by one woman named Pantip Dalajan who does both the waiting and cooking on demand. We had heard of it from Joey and Jeanne earlier in the week and after eating a spicy Isan style salad there I was sold on taking the class.

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Pantip in front of the Bamboo Bee

We showed up around 10am and she did a quick run through of the ingredients, we picked out about five meals to cook and she got us started on chopping and prepping. About a half hour later we got to cooking and 20 minutes after that sat down to eat a substantial amount of food. It was before noon so there weren’t any customers yet and we spent awhile talking about where we were from, why she started a restaurant, thoughts on food and specifics of cooking. We were still in the process of producing fake meat from gluten when customers began to show up and we got see more of how she ran the restaurant. Since she was cooking for a group she showed us how to make the additional items she was preparing, explained why she makes them the way she does and possible variations. We ended up sticking around another couple hours and in the end felt like I was legitimately getting to know someone Thai for the first time since I’ve been here.

That said, we have met plenty of cool westerners. Back in Ayutthaya we met a Swiss girl named Claudia and a Dutchman named Mark while staying at our guesthouse, we joined up with them the following day to cruise around in a tuk tuk with a driver Claudia had booked prior. We saw some fairly impressive wats outside of the main park, had some beers at the floating markets, and I’m fairly sure the place we ate dinner that night was actually a brothel on account of a constant buzzing noise coming from the back and the anxious attitude of the waitress.

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Wat Phra Ram – Ayutthaya

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Wat Phra Si Sanphet – Ayutthaya

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Reclining Buddha – Ayutthaya

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Wat Mahathat – Ayutthaya

We also hung out at Sukhothai Historical Park with a New Zealander of Chinese descent named Andrew- he had work for the NZ department of immigration before leaving to pursue long term travel. He gave us plenty of advice on visiting other places in Southeast Asia, showed us some photos of a couple kids whose education he’s sponsoring in Cambodia and generally shot the shit with us about anything and everything.

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Wat Mahathat – Sukhothai Historical Park

Between the two, I think I preferred Ayutthaya to Sukhothai. Many of the wats in Ayutthaya were walkable as they were dispersed throughout the town itself and walking to them was interesting as we went through long stretches of markets that line the street selling everything from furniture to clothes, hardware to food- we even ran into a small carnival area. Out of chance, the World Heritage Fair was taking place during our time there so we were able to see more than we normally would have in terms of entertainment.

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Crowd at the World Heritage Festival

I plan on trying to update the blog on a more regular basis but it’s taken some time to get down a decent mobile workflow- the WordPress iOS app that we are using is buggy, counter intuitive and soaks up plenty of unnecessary time by requiring manual changes to coding for things at could be automated, I’ll be trying out other apps (and even the web interface directly) in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I’m also trying to figure out the best way to use social media. Originally, I envisioned running it all through twitter and pushing the tweets out to Facebook as this would allow me to continue to avoid the relative complexity of Facebook while still keeping the majority of friends and family updated but then a substantial amount of my tweets were excuses to post photos that were better placed on Instagram direct as they didn’t really provide information about what we were doing.

The main issue is that I need to settle on the purpose of each service- right now I’m leaning toward twitter for updates on when and where, Instagram for a visual representation of what with Facebook for basic communication (hopefully I’ll even be able to reduce this down to Messenger alone). I’d like to use both Vine and Bubbli more than I currently am but both of these will be exceptions to the rule as they’ll have to run through the twitter feed.

I thought it might be useful to starting keeping track of some basic information about each location we had been for future travelers or our own reference. Below I’ve listed out our accommodation and useful notes on each area as follows:

Ayutthaya

Accommodation: Moradokthai Guesthouse standard double room at about 300 baht per night (~$10); food and drink on premises although the beer is Chang and you can only get food if you can catch one of the staff to cook it for you; good location near to a 7-Eleven, food carts, markets and the main park.

Transport: Third class train costs 15 baht (~50 cents); trip takes about an hour and a half, seats are a little hard but fine for the length of the ride.

Notes:

Fresh Vegetarian Mushroom Soup in the markets along Pa Thon Road near the park.

Wat Pha Ram was the first wat we saw and our favorite to visit during the stay although Wat Chaiwatthanaram was the most impressive.

If you’re adverse to getting scammed a few bucks, watch out if you go to the reclining Buddha- upon arrival one lady will come up and push on you to buy an offering of flowers, incense and candles for 20 baht. If you do this, another woman will come over and show you how to make the offering and then pressure you to buy a few good luck charms in return for a couple hundred baht.

World Heritage Fair is held each December- check the dates on their website and plan accordingly if you can.

Coffee Old City is in a central location across from Wat Mahathat and can supply you with a decent western breakfast, coffee or afternoon beer.

Sukhothai

Accommodation: TR Guesthouse bungalow at 600 baht per night (~$20); room was really nice. Standard rooms looked decent as well, staff spoke alright English and I would recommend them to anyone looking for a decent mid range place- also close to a 7-Eleven and the night markets.

Transport: We took a second class seat on a non-DRC train to Phitsanulok for baht; watch the stops as you get close as they may forget to let you know when you’re near the stop. Train was old but functional and seating was fairly padded- slightly more comfortable than a United Airlines flight. Vendors on the train will sell you water, plastic bags of soda, pre-made meals or hot soup. Non-DRC train has a squat toilet with asshose so you may want to hold it unless you have to go. You can read more about Thai train travel at Man in Seat 61.

Once you get to Phitsanulok you can get a tuk tuk driver from the train station to the bus station for 60 baht (~$2) minimum, he’ll likely try to get you to let him drive you to Sukhothai for 1,000 baht (~$33) but don’t do it- the cost of a bus ride on a decent coach out to New Sukhothai is only 43 baht (~$1.45) and about one hour.

When you get to Sukhothai, there will be more tuk tuk drivers who will take you to whatever guesthouse you are staying at for about 50 baht (~$1.65) only after they have taken you to whatever guesthouse sponsors them. This is colloquially known as the “Sukhothai Tuk Tuk Mafia” whereby each driver is bought off by a different guesthouse, you’ll most likely be riding out with another guy who stands on the back bumper with laminated photos of the rooms at the given guesthouse and talks it up to you.

Notes:

Night markets a worth a walk through and get fairly crowded when local Thais get out of work- most people pull up within arms reach of stalls or carts on their motorbikes to get food or groceries so make sure you’re not in the way. Good cheap meals can be had at around 30-40 baht.

Pai Sukhothai, Chopper Bar and Poo Restaurant are all along the same stretch of street in New Sukhothai- Pai Sukhothai is slightly more expensive but has a notch better food than Poo Reaturant; Chopper Bar is the only bar catering to westerners in town. In the end, we spent most of our time drinking at the guesthouse as the beers were cheaper and atmosphere better- you can also get beers at the markets.

Chiang Mai

Accommodation: SDT Home standard double fan room for 300 baht (~$10) per night; it’s mainly a tour company (Something Different Tours) but they also have a few bunker-like unsealed rooms with open air en suite bathroom and heating unit on the wall for the shower. The door to the bathroom didn’t actually close but we were able to rig it to stay closed with a series of elastic bands looped around a light switch on one side and the bathroom door handle on the other. The bed comes with a mosquito net so even if bugs can get in the room easily you are fairly protected- during our stay it was cooler than normal (around 12-14C/55F) so they weren’t much of an issue. Location was close to Loi Khro Road, night markets, Pha Tha Gate and the lower southeast quadrant of the old city.

Transportation: Bus from New Sukhothai cost 239 baht (~$8) and takes about five to six hours depending on your driver- ours was cautious when things got tight but floored it on the straight aways and cut his partner’s smoke breaks short at stops on the way by starting to drive off without him- we were dead on five hours.

Notes:

The area we went into along Nimmanheiman Road is known as Nimman for short- it’s a hipper, less touristy area but priced closer to home.

Cheapest beers we found were at Stick Rice Cafe where a large Leo costs 80 baht (~$2.70)

Chiang Mai is a big city so make a later update on that city alone

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