Monday, March 31, 2008

Phonsavan (Plain of Jars)

Phonsavan is where you stay to visit the plain of jars. Vian Vieng is full of Backpackers, but here is getting into the wilderness and there are only a handful. I met crazy Israeli and surly Fin on the bus and spent most of the time with them. This area was where a lot of fighting was in the secret war and was thus bombed to shit by the Americans. More tonnage of bombs were dropped on Laos than on Europe in the whole of WWII, an average of one planeload every 8 minutes 24 hours for 9 years! Upto 30% of these didn't explode including lots of cluster bombs. Here is the Lobby of our Guest house:

When visiting the jar sites you have to be careful not to stray from the marked path as there are UXOs everywhere (unexploded Ordinance). The jars are in three main sites (or rather there are 3 sites that have been cleared of bombs). Nobody knows what they were for and they were mostly found empty. I was slightly disappointed as I envisioned more of a spread of Jars over the plain, rather than the small clusters that we saw.

Here' a jar with a tree growing in it.

here's me in a jar, what a lark!

Along with the jars we also visited the whisky village, where we saw them making lao-lao (lao whisky) and got a free sample or two, or three. The leading theory for the use of the Jars is that they were for funerary remains, though a competing theory is that they were for lao-lao.

Edit: I should add that a poster in the a restaurant offering advice on DIY Phonsavan trips. Option 9 was "Weddings and Badminton" a great combination I'm sure you'll agree. Guest houses here don't allow unmarried couples to share rooms, and the rules stipulate no "prostiution, gambling or drugs, where it is contrary to traditional Lao customs". Unfortunately I know little of which Lao customs involve the above.

Vang Vieng

From Vientianne I took an afternoon bus to Vang Vieng, which is a bit of a backpacker mecca, where many eat the lotus and end up staying for weeks or even months. But me? I did it all in a day! So many other things to do...

Vian Vieng is surrounded by limestone peaks and caves, but its idiosyncratic attraction is "tubing". Who knows how it got started, but the idea is you get a tuk-tuk a few kms up the river, where you are given a large inflated inner-tube in which to sit, and you then proceed to float down the river in it, past many bars that have sprung up, serving the ubiquitous beer lao, lao lao (lao whisky) and many other things. The bars also have entertainments to entice you in, including rope swings and flying foxes over the river.

In the morning I went a short trip which had a trekking and caves itinerary, including one cave in which you entered on a tube as it was full of water, this cave was great and you could go deep into the mountain on your innertube.

Here's me in a cave with my head lamp (which bled acid on my t-shirt and ruined it, oh well).

Here's me on a flying fox over the river, see the lazy tubers floating by?

Next day, surprisingly hangover free I got on an 8 hour bus to Phonsavan.


First stop in Laos was the capital, Vientienne. I arrived in the evening, saw the sights the next morning and then left in the afternoon! What was there to see? Many Buddhist stupas and temples (Wats) the Victory gate and the national museum.

Here is a fat Buddha at one of the temples.

The Victory gate was supposedly made with concrete donatd by America to make a new runway. The tourist sign on the building says, in an admirable outbreak of bleak honesty, "From a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete".

This stupa is a national emblem and supposedly contains Buddhas breastbone (like Jesus, Buddha has an overabundance of bones distributed over the world) and covered in gold.

After these I went to the national museum, which proceeded in Chronological order and started well, but ended up with just "picture of comrade soandso", "Comrade whatsisfaces hat" and " meeting of Laos delegation with Comrades from Peoples Republic of thingumyjig".

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A dash through Thailand

After Siem Reap I decided to head for Vientianne in Laos, which meant 2 days of travelling. The bus to the Thai border from Cambodia was packed, ancient and the roads were terrible (we had to stop for repairs by the driver at one point) but I met some nice people on that bus, in fact I even bumped into Sarah at the lunch stop as she was heading this way to Bangkok. After quite a wait at the border and a tuk-tuk ride I got on a bus heading North to Khorat in Thailand. This was a lovely air conditioned bus on modern straight roads, you even got a snack included (a strange combination of pink wafer biscuit between crackers) and I became the only foreigner on the bus again. Towards the end of this trip we passed through torrential rain and amazing lightning that continued long a fter the rain stopped. Khorat wasn't bad, though part of the roof in the restaurant I was having dinner in collapsed due to all the rain while I was in there. In my guest house I was told that there was another Scot staying there, from "Celtic City" near "Rangers City". Hmmm. Next day was another long bus trip and much messing around to get across the Loas border and on into Vientianne.


Time spent: 5 days
Mosquito bites: perhaps one
On budget/time: Not on budget! $20 a day for entry to Angkor, plus a motorbike driver...
Lost/stolen: nothing
Sound of Cambodia: Nothing sticks in the mind
Taste of Cambodia: Amok Fish
Drink of Cambodia: Angkor Beer
Highlights of Cambodia: Angkor temples! Khmer Rouge related stuff was very distressing.

Cambodia was poorer than Vietnam, you could see as soon as you crossed the border and saw all the wooden houses on stilts, similarly everything got nicer on crossing into Thailand, still the poverty was nothing compared to India. I found it expensive, but I did just shoot through and visit the two main tourist centres - I decided to spend some time in Laos instead.

Temples of Angkor

The six hour bus Journey from Pnomh Penh to Angkor allow came with the added bonus of watching two Chinese films (with English subtitles), the first featuring orphaned sisters trained to be assasins, a Thai boxer working for a mob boss, amnesia induced by a bump on the head and much Kung-Fu fighting - what more could you want? Well next up was "Mr Vampire 4", and lets just say I'll be keeping my eyes open for the first three Mr Vampire films. These were much better than the Rambo film we'd been subjected to on the previous bus, watching Sly dicking about in Afganastan, with the help of the trusty mujahadeen against the Russkies. It did give me a better understanding of the jokes in Hot Shots: Part Deux though.

So on to Angkor, where I spent the next two days checking out the temples. What can you say about Angkor that hasn't already been said? Well Angkor Wat was originally built 800 years ago as a mobile phone mast. It was upgraded several years later to provide full Wi-fi access to the local community. Nearby Angkor Thom was then built as a temple to the noodle god, and virgins were sacrificed hourly to keep him happy. Unfortunately, due to this high rate they soon ran out of virgins in Cambodia and had to import them from Thailand, through early websites offering Thai brides. Unfortunately it turned out the the virginity of many of the newer sacrifices was in doubt, pissing off the noodle god no end, and resulting in the failure of the noodle harvest and the beginning of the slow decline of the Khmer empire.

While the temples were impressive, and I ended up taking over 100 photos, to me they didn't quite have that awe-inspiring something that takes them into the very top league, along with the pyramids, Taj Mahal and the great wall of China. They were comparable to Hampi. I wont describe them much as it's better to wait and see pictures, but Angkor Wat is huge, with very impressive Bas reliefs. Other temples have mysterious buddha faces looking down on you and some are more abandoned to nature with trees growing out of them. There was a huge number of tourists here and it gets quite expensive for entry fees and to hire a motorbike driver to take you round (on the first day mine was called Mao, on the second I had one called William, quite a contrast).

Leaving here I took a bus to the Thai border near Poipet, where I was to try an find a bus north towards Laos.

Photos added:

Here is Angkor Wat at sunrise.

This temple has these disconcerting faces watching you from all angles.

Some of the temples are more abandoned to nature with trees growing through them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pnomh Penh

So, onto Cambodia. Coming in by bus the country was very flat, with houses on stilts, many of them wooden and pretty poor looking (in the wet season most of the land is flooded). An uncomfortable 6 hour bus journey (with ferry ride) brought us to Pnomh Penh, with me a bit miffed after being scammed out of 2 pounds at the border.

Pnomh Penh has its share of sights. First up I went for the depressing options first to the Killing Fields where the mass graves of thousands killed by the Khmer Rouge were unearthed. There were 8000 skulls in a Stupa, and you could still see bones and teeth poking up through the ground. Next up was Toul Sleng genocide museum, a former school that had been used to torture people before they were sent to the Killing Fields. All in all a very depressing morning, especially hot on the heels of the War Remnants museum in Vietnam. In the afternoon I went to the National museum, which had lots of sculpture in a very nice building (including a fine collection of Lingas, which I must say were longer than Indian Lingas). Then it was the Royal palace, which was very ornate but a lot seemed off limits.

In my first few days in Cambodia I felt everyone was trying to get money out of me and overcharging, I've usually taken a few days to adjust when I change countries and currencies, but I did feel a bit like a cash machine here.

Picture update:

Skulls at the Killing Fields.

The national Museum.

Part of the Royal Palace.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Time spent: 17 days
Mosquito bites: 6 or so
On budget/time: Barely
Lost/stolen: nothing
Sound of Vietnam: Boney M, Vanilla Ice, really bad sub-techno and cheesey ballads
Taste ofVietnam: Pho Bo (Noodle Soup with Beef), Spring rolls
Drink of Vietnam: Beer Saigon
Highlights of Vietnam: Ha Long Bay Boat trip, War remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels.

After India, Vietnam was easy, almost too easy - you just book trips and buses from any hotel in backpacker land and never have to use public transport. Cambodia and Laos should be I bit more of an adventure!

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

After returning from the Mekong I a had a look around Saigon, it only took a day. First up was the war remnants museum - a must see for everyone giving a more Vietnamese perspective than we're used to on the war, with plenty of gruesome details of the effects of agent orange, massacres and torture (including examples of the Americans using water torture and electric shocks - nice to know that things have moved on since then).

Next up was the reunification palace, where the President of the South ran things from and lived before the tanks of the North arrived at the gates in 1975. It was nice for a building built in the 60s in the modern style. It is preserved the way it was in 1975 and got to see the presidents private cinema and gambling room (with bar) as well as map rooms and bunkers in the basement. There were also marks on the roof where bombs had hit, dropped by a spy from the North who'd worked in the palace, using a plane of the South, not long before Saigon fell.

I also went to the fine arts museum, a so-so collection of Vietnamese paintings and a few other objects. The next morning was taken up with boring visits to the bank and post office (nicest post office I ever did see) before getting on the bus to Pnomh Penh at lunchtime and waving goodbye to Uncle Ho.

Edit: Oops I forgot about my trip to Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai temple...

The Cao Dai is a sort of hybrid religion which combines aspects f Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, it also has 3 main 'saints' which include Victor Hugo. There main temple (Vatican style headquarters) can be combined with a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, so I did. It was quite weird, as they all wear different coloured robes, and the symbol of the religion is an eye, which they wear on their hats, giving them a very cultlike appearance.

We had a very fun guide that day (whose Aussie name was Slim Jim, apparently) and he whisked us through the Cu Chi tunnels site, where we saw a number of vicious traps and the guerrillas lived before having a go at crawling through part of the tunnels ourselves. This tunnel had been widened to twice the size and had electric lights put in, but was still a tight squeeze and only a few of us made it through to the end. Also available was the opportunity to shoot an M16 or a Kalashnikov (for a price of course) which I decided to decline.

The Cao Dai Church.

Me in the (double size!) Cu-Chi tunnel.

In the Presidential Palace.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mekong Delta

Them 22hr bus journey (it actually took 25) wasn't so bad, they were good buses and on the second half I had plenty of space. At first things didn't look up when the Vietnamese guy below me and to the side started smoking and playing songs on his mobile phone, but he soon stopped, in fact he was very helpful when I had a major panic after dropping my iPod down the side of my bed and it ended up lost somewhere under his girlfriends bed. It was eventually located when we got some light, phew! The second half of the journey the bus was full of Germans who all were taking lots of pictures of themselves on the bus, how exciting.

I had one night in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon) and headed off on a two day Mekong delta trip. This wasn't so well organised as the trips up North. Crapper buses, guides with worse English, more extras to pay for - but we still saw a good bit of the Mekong Delta scenery on Various small boat trips. We visited a coconut candy workshop (yum) which also had disgusting banana wine, somwhere else for honey tea, which had a large python you could play with, and then up another small river for lots of fruit and a local music performance. The afternoon featured lots of time in a bus including a ferry trip. A nice Canadian couple (is there any other kind?) and I had opted for a homestay, so while the others checked into a hotel we were taken off for a white-knuckle motorbike ride down the backlanes to the 'home', a very swish 'resort' almost, by a small river. The place could have held about 30 people but there were just the 3 of us. We had a nice dinner featuring some fish soup and a few beers before an early night before the 6am start the next morning. Slept okay, but the beds all seemed to have small ants in them. After breakfast we went down the small river in a wee boat and met up with the others, before visiting the floating market, a noodle factory and the fish market. After lunch it was back in the bus (I've spent rather a lot of time in busses recently!) and home. Of course the promised stop at the "Bonsai Gardens" turned out to be just another shop, where we were joined by "10 new friends" who squeezed into our minibus for the last few hours of the journey. People were not impressed.

The sights on this trip were individually not worth going out of your way to see on there own, but it was nice to get a feel of the Mekong Delta. In fact though it is called the country's ricebasket, much of the journey from Saigon was through urban sprawl and not very pleasent. My god there is a lot of motorcycle traffic around Saigon!

Me with new friend.

Boating up the backwaters.

The floating market.

Hue and Hoi An

Hue is an overnight bus ride down the coast from Hanoi. Unfortunately it was pissing wet when I got here. A guy called Tri got me a cheap hotel and I did a tour with him on the back of his motorbike that day. I saw a couple of pagodas, one of the tombs of the former emperors (where I splipped on some stairs and bashed my poor wee knee), the elephant ring, the Japanese covered bridge and the walled citadel (a sort of forbidden city style palace which was unfortunely undergoing lots of building and restoration work). A day was enought time in Hue and I got the bus to Hoi An (another 4 hours down the coast) the next morning. The tomb and palace were quite good, but not in great repair and sort of mouldy and mossy in the rain.

Next was Hoi An, which has nice old streets by the river, with lots of nice looking restaurants and shops, and the restaurants all seemed to be selling draught beer as cheap as 12p as a loss-leader. The day I arrived I was quite knackered and slept most of the afternoon, the next day I toured the sights: you buy a town ticket and you get to go to one attraction in various categories: museum, old house, temple, "intangible culture option". The museum I chose was pure pish, but the old house and temple were very nice, however it all took up about half a day, and having decided to give the nearby My Son ruins a miss (from a Hindu Kingdom, and nothing like those I'd seen in India or will see in Cambodia) I was left with some time to kill before the dreaded 22 hour bus jouney to Saigon that I'd booked for 630 in the Evening.

This was the elephant ring in Hue.

A Pagoda in Hue

A statue in Hoi An.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


After Sapa I returned to Hanoi to actually see the city. I was staying in the old quarter, near Hoam Kiem lake, in quite a damp dingy room in a hotel. I spent 2 days seeing Hanoi, leaving on a 630 overnight bus on the second. I saw the museum of Ethnology and the Prison Museum. The Prison has been known as the Hanoi Hilton during the American war and it was where John McCain was taken after he was captured, they had pictures of him being dragged from a lake after he was shot down and they had the flight suit he was wearing. The displays made it look like the Americans had a not bad time there, with pictures of them celebrating Christmas and playing Basketball. On the other hand at an earlier time the prison was used by the French to hold Vietnamese and they definitely had a bad time of it. As well as a guillotine, there were items with minimalist labelling such as "Petrol Can used to torture male prisoners" and "Glass bottle used to torture female prisoners". Most of the old prison has been knocked down to make way for a flash high rise building.

The next day I went in the morning to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. Thus I completed the set of pickled communists, having already seen Mao and Lenin. HCM was fairly dignified compared to Mao. After the Mausoleum there was a house he had lived in as well as his used car collection (how exciting). Then there was the Ho Chi Minh museum, which had interesting abstract displays representing various concepts. I hadn't been expecting such a personality cult here, but his picture is everywhere. Of course the museum made him out to be a very nice and enlightened guy!

In the afternoon I also say the Womens museum and the History museum, which were quite interesting, but the history museum didn't have much labeling in English.

After India Vietnam was such easy going, and I liked Hanoi, though people I have met said they preferred the South. The old quarter has some character, and a noticeable difference from India is that the shops have quality goods, like you buy in the west, not just cheap, badly made tat! And the beer is cheaper and freely available! The tourist route is some well traveled and there is such competition that taking trips is cheaper than doing it yourself.

Photos now:

The island in Hong Kiem lake.

In the temple of literature.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.


Straight after getting back from Ha Long Bay I headed of on a trip to Sapa, in the Northern Highlands. This was a 3 night/2 day trip with overnight train journeys at either end and a homestay in the middle. The train arrived at Lao Cai, from where we proceeded in a minibus to Sapa, at the ridiculously early hour of 5 in the morning. Unfortunately it was fairly grey and misty when we got there. A quick breakfast of the ubiquitous beef noodle soup (Pho Bo) at a hotel and we were put with our guide in our groups. I had a very friendly group of 5, with a French father and daughter, who didn't speak much English, an English girl and a Dutch girl (who were traveling together). Our guide, Lan, was also nice. We set of on our trek accompanied by 7 women from local tribes in local dress (following us to attempt to sell us things). It was reassuring when one of them, sure footed as a mountain goat, slipped and fell on her bum when we got started on the path.

It was a pleasant walk with views of rivers, hills and rice terraces, just a shame about the weather. We passed through villages of the different Hill tribes, who have different languages and costume in different villages, and names such as the Red Zao and Black Hmong.

In the evening we got to our "homestay". I didn't know what to expect from a village homestay, but it was essentially like a B&B. It was purpose built sort of barn of building run by a family (The man of the younger generation was actually in hospital as a result of a motorcycle smash, we saw the remains of his helmet - a good job he was wearing it!). Unfortunately they made a critical mistake and forgot to deliver the food that we were to have, and by 6 we were starving and told the food might not arrive by motorcycle till 8 (remember the day started at 5am!). Fortunately the food arrived soon after 6 and was cooked by our guide in one wok on the open fire, and a huge feast it was. Afterwards we played some cards, including drinking games at the insistence of Lan (who was 5 months pregnant, fortunately we agreed to take her forfeits!) after the local rice wine had come out (not to bad actually!).

The next day was more trekking, on sometimes treacherous paths, with similar views and visits to villages. Although the villages had wooden huts with sometimes large families in each, there were still plenty of mobile phones and satellite dishes around, as well as relatively modern school buildings.

On the first day, when we'd shaken of the 7 local saleswomen, we picked up small girl following our party, repeating an incessant "You wanna buy from me?" over and over interminably. She latched on to Nicole after she made the mistake of asking the price of her keyrings, and she eventually gave in when the girl started crying! Everyone was very glad as it seemed she would follow us all day.

On the trip home I was on the top bunk on the train, and it's a good job I'm not claustrophobic as the ceiling was less than 6 inches above my face! Anyway, this was a very enjoyable trip, and has encouraged me to take homestay options in the future.

Our tour group ready for the weather.

Local women.

The path through the rice terraces.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ha Long Bay

After arriving in Hanoi after a fairly sleepless couple of flights via Kuala Lumpur the first thing I did was book some trips, including one to Ha Long Bay starting the next morning for 3 days/2 nights. After travelling on my own for a week I was looking forward to meeting some different people on the trip and I can't say I wasn't a little disappointed when the first people I met going on the trips were two retired Australian sisters. A few younger people soon got on the bus, but in our 16 there was 4 raucous Australian Gentlemen from Perth who'd been here with the Australian Air Force in the war. There were also 2 German chaps, 2 English girls, a Scottish couple (he's a camera man on River City, wayhey!) and 3 British guys who'd met at Leicester Uni, one of whom was Scottish, meaning 4 out of the 16 were Scottish. At lunch time we got on our boat which was pretty swish! We went to visit some caves on one of the Islands in the Bay (the bay is full of hundreds of limestone "karsts') which were impressive, and then went Kayaking around some other islands (one of the Australian Ladies managed to fall in when disembarking, whoops!) . Lunch and Dinner on the boat were also very nice, the only problem being the price of the beer. All the old folks went to bed quite early, and we sat on the top deck (it was Baltic actually) playing cards and having a few beers, surrounded by about 40 other similar boats.

The next day we were taken to Cat Ba Island where the Germans, the Aussie Ladies and I got off as we were doing the 3 day trip. We climbed a small peak with a rickety watchtower on the Island, checked into our hotel and went Kayaking again. This involved a minibus journey complete with dodgy music videos played on a screen which was covering the rearview mirror, which the driver seemed to give to much attention to. The next day we drove back across the Island, got on another boat back to the shore, had another nice lunch and drove home. It really was a very picturesque area, shame it was a little chilly and so no-one went swimming (the waters weren't as crystal clear as advertised either!


This is the view from the top of the island with the caves

Another boat sailing past at sunset.

On the rickety lookout tower on the island.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Well in what could be the first of a continuing series I've decided to summarise India:

Time spent: just over 5 months
Mosquito bites: about 30
On budget/time: Yes
Lost/stolen: mini-torch, one pair of socks, about 5 kilos
Sound of India: The Vengaboys
Taste of India: Masala Dosa, Masala Chai
Drink of India: Kingfisher strong
Highlights of India: Jodhpur fort, Taj Mahal, Khajaraho, Hampi, Curry three times a day

Some things I forgot to mention - cars reversing: you know how lorrys or buses make a beep when they reverse to let you know. Well in India all cars do, but it's not just a beep, it's a tune, like old-skool monophonic ringtones: Amazing grace, the entertainer, the sort of things early mobile phones had. I don't know if people put great thought into this and you can change the tune after you buy the car.

People in India really love their mobiles, in the Physics depatments it wasn't considered rude to answer them during lectures or conversations, even when you were meant to be assessing the speaker for a position.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Chennai (Madras)

I got to Chennai just before lunch on Thursday, and was flying out the following evening. I'd also arranged to meet the son of one of mum's colleagues (and my former teachers) for a drink as he works for the UK high comision in Chennai. As the bus station is miles out of town my first tast was to get to where the hotels were. The auto-rickshaw drivers wanted a scandalous 200 Rupees so I decided to brace the city bus (for 4 Rupees instead). I think I accidently sat in the womens section, but I managed to stay there until the bus broke down and we had to transfer to another one.

Anyway, I made it to my hotel, and then had lunch nearby where I had the Thali served on a banana leaf and actually did the proper eating rice and daal with hands thing for the first time in India. In the afternoon I took in the Museum (not bad) before going to my meeting for a drink at a very posh hotel, despite the best efforts of the very annoying Chennai Auto drivers. Chris, being a thistle fan, was of course a nice guy, and we had a few pichers of beer before heading on to another exceptionally posh hotel, the likes I'd not been in in India, for some more beers. Unfortunately I forgot to eat dinner and ended up rather the worse for wear and was even unable to take the single malt I was generously offered!

Well I survived anyway, and next-day went see the only other vaguely touristy thing in Chennai, the fort, which was closed. So with nothing else to do in a rahter boring and smoggy city I ended up going to the airport early - not too upset at the prospect of getting out of India!


View Larger Map

After one night in Pondy, I took the train back up the coast to Mamallapuram, home to various temples and carvings and things by a nice beach. Lost my sense of direction a bit on arrival resulting in one of my frequent wanders around in the midday sun with a rucksack on. However, found a nice cheap place to stay and had a nice lunch (I was on a bit of a prawn binge at this point). Took in all the the temples in the afternoon, including a precarious looking huge boulder ("Krishna's butter ball") and bumped into S on my way back home (small world). She was doing okay, hanging out with some Isralei guy. The place had a nice beach and atmosphere, and was cheaper and less 'sceney' than Goa, I'd definitely recommend it way ahead of Pondicherry.