After many years of travel, I had seen a vast number of the worlds great archaeological sites, but there was one that had been eluding me. That was the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat temple complex of Cambodia. Liza was also keen to visit, and although the trip was only a short duration, we managed to see and do a fair bit. As well as Cambodia, we also made our way over to southern Vietnam. Our first port of call was Siem Reap, due to the fact that we can now fly direct from Australia, but mainly because Siem Reap has the cultural heart of the nation, ‘The Angkor Temple Complex’ right on its doorstep. Siem Reap was a lively place for its size (population 140,000), and although not the most beautiful of towns, it had many aspects in it’s favour, with its dusty tree lined avenues and a multitude of restaurants to choose from, you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy it. For those flying in from colder climates, the instant the aircraft door is de-pressurized, you are welcomed by Siem Reaps intense heat, and our visit fell directly in the middle of Cambodia’s hottest month, April. During this time of year, the temperature regularly hovers around 40 degrees Celsius, add to this some moderate humidity, and you’re going to feel the heat! (that is unless you’ve flown in from Timbuktu).

Some people fly into Siem Reap early morning, do a full days tour of the complex (in the searing heat), and stay just the one night before flying out. To us this seemed ludicrous, and we spent four day’s touring the area, and could have easily spent longer, to see some of the temples that lay further afield. We would depart very early in the morning, beating the heat before the mercury would begin its sharp rise. Spending two or three hours exploring the complex, before heading back to the hotel to relax in the pool. We would then head back out again in the afternoon, to wander through the temples for another couple of hours, before watching the sunset over Angkor Wat each night at dusk. A great tip if you’re travelling with two or more people, is to hire a remorque-moto (tuk tuk, rickshaw) for a period of 24hrs or greater. We hired our own personal driver, who would be available to us around the clock. He would take us anywhere we wanted to go, morning, noon, and night, and at a pre-arranged cost of $12 per day, it seemed a fair deal to us. April is not only Cambodia’s hottest month, but also the month of the Cambodia new year celebrations. The actual date changes between the 13th and 14th of April, from year to year. Being at Angkor during this time had its good, but also it’s bad points. The bad, was the amount of people visiting temples, and although crowded at times, the good was that there was always something happening, with many religious ceremonies taking place, and the early morning starts we had, seemed to alleviate the crowd problem, as most temples were virtually empty before 8.00am.

Before arranging this trip to Cambodia, it was my understanding that Angkor Wat, was a solitary temple, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The temples of Angkor actually number over a thousand, although most of these have now been reduced to rubble, and overgrown with vegetation.

Liza standing amongst the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple. The root system of the tree's above were massive.

There are still a great many that have stood the test of time, with none other than the centre piece of Khmer architecture, ‘Angkor Wat’ that is said to be the worlds largest single religious monument. If you intend on visiting Angkor, then picking up a copy of an excellent read on the subject, ‘Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques‘ would be well worth your while, as it contains a great deal of detailed information and images, that just aren’t available in any guide book. Spending time at the vast expanses of Angkor Wat was great, and we visited it at least three times during our stay. These visits were all at different times of the day, to take in the view with different lighting conditions, but to me the highlight of all the temples was Ta Prohm. With it’s partially collapsed state, and centuries old tree’s towering to the sky above, their root system basically holding the structure together, this temple is without a doubt the most atmospheric of all the temples of Angkor. Scrummaging around this temple on your own, it’s hard not to feel like Indiana Jones, and its well worth getting here at dawn, to beat the crowds.

After leaving Siem Reap and it’s magnificent temples, we made our way overland to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The journey took us no more than 6-7 hours on a local bus, and cost us a mere $6. Once we retrieved our luggage from the roof of the bus, our next mission was to make it the next 2-3km to the hotel without paying the same amount or more, for the 5 minute journey. How does that work I hear you say? Well it happens that we had booked ourselves into the best Hotel in Cambodia, and possibly one of the best in South East Asia, the Raffles Le Royal. If our rickshaw driver got wind of where we were staying, there is no doubt our charge would be at least five or maybe even ten times the normal price, and our normal price in turn would be double what the locals would pay anyway.

The first rule of not getting ripped off with a taxi or rickshaw driver in any third world country, is to not go with anyone who approaches you in a bus or train station, and try and find someone just going about their daily business on the streets outside.

A short walk away I found a young fellow who seemed on the straight and narrow. We showed him on our map where we wanted to go (basically just across the road from the Raffles), and arranged a fair price. When we arrived at the location he turned to us and put both his arms out as if to say, ‘No Hotel Here’. We then pointed across the street, and over to the Raffles, with its manicured gardens and high walls and gates. He laughed and made the cash sign with his fingers, drove over and dropped us off at the front, alongside the private limousines and cars for the other VIP guests.

The Raffles was a great place to stay, and in the grand scheme of things quite inexpensive, for the luxury and service it provided. I believe we got our room for just over $100 a night, but this was off season, and peak season would see the rooms price in the vicinity of $140. Whilst in Phnom Pehn we made visits to the city’s main sights, from the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, to the very somber, Toul Sleng Museum. This museum, formally a high school before being turned into one of man kinds worst interrogation prisons, known as S-21.

The atrocities that took place within the confines of the four walls of this hell hole, between the years of 1975 and 1978 are to difficult for words to describe alone.

Some of the victims of the Tuol Sleng (S21) interrogation prison.

One must be within the confines of the grounds or inside one of the torture chambers, whilst listening or reading about it’s unspeakable history, to get some sort of understanding on what took place. After the prisoners were tortured for their information, and were seen to be of no more use to Pol Pot’s hideous regime, the Khmer Rouge. They were transported to Choeung Ek’s notorious ‘Killing Fields’, where they were often bludgeoned to death to save on ammunition. The total number of deaths, is to this day unknown, but believed to be in the region of 17,000 to 20,000. The following day, we also spent an afternoon at the Killing Fields, a short 15km journey from town. Even to this day, there are still many fragments of human remains scattered around the site’s many open graves, where the mass murders were committed. More than 8000 skulls arranged by sex and age, are visible behind a clear glass panel of the site’s Memorial Stupa.

With it’s traumatic history, strongly etched in the minds of those old enough to remember, it is now through the young the city of Phnom Penh, is beginning to put aside the horrors of the past, and move forward.

With tourism now a major contributor to the countries economy, there are many nice bars and restaurants slowly popping up around town, and we had the chance to visit some of these whilst there. Once again, we hired a remorque-moto and driver for our complete stay in Phnom Pehn. This time our drivers name was Simon, and he spent three days with us, driving all over the city. After the first day he began to loosen up a bit, and in the end we would invite him in to some of the cafes, to have a cold beer and a chat. One of our favourite places in town, was the ‘Foreign Corespondents Club,’ or known locally as the FCC. The FCC is a popular watering hole amongst tourists and expats alike, and we would make it there for happy hour each evening, to sit in the open area upstairs, grab a bite to eat, and watch the world go by on the streets below us. Although only a short stay of just over a week, our time in Cambodia was very enjoyable, and we would highly recommend visiting. Our next destination was another I had also been looking forward to for quite some time. That was Vietnam, and with Ho Chi Minh City only a short flight away, it was only logical for us to arrange a visit.

A view of Hoi An's waterfront area. There were many small restaurants along the water, and the boats would come and go all day.

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City (commonly abbreviated to HCMC, which I will use from now on) was a complete change of pace, after the somewhat tranquil surrounding’s of Phnom Pehn. HCMC (formally Saigon, and although unofficial, many locals still use this name) has four times the population of Phnom Penh, but it felt more like ten. The city has a somewhat hectic feel to it, with it’s swarming traffic problems, both on the roads and the waterways of the Saigon River. Although minus the major attractions of many other world famous cities, HCMC was alive, and we spent a couple of days here just soaking up the atmosphere before heading to our next destination Hoi An. Hoi Ann is a small riverside town close to the coast, situated roughly halfway between Vietnam’s contrasting major cities of Saigon in the South, and Hanoi to the North. Hoi An is a must see for anyone heading to Vietnam, and although it was early on in our trip I knew it would be the highlight of our time in Vietnam.

The town has a rich trading history, and was one of South East Asia’s major ports in the 17th and 18th centuries, and to me it felt like Vietnam’s version of the historic African towns of Lamu or Zanzibar.

The old town is a no go zone for cars, and with Hoi An’s relatively small scale, this made it very easy to explore all it has to offer on foot. Around every corner and up every alley way, navigating your way and exploring the old town is like a step back in time, and there is no surprise that it is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Liza loved the shopping, with its many art and craft shops, and Hoi Ann is also famous for it’s tailors, who can produce quality made to order clothing, at a fraction of the cost of what you would pay in the West. Whilst Liza was out shopping, I would spend many hours on foot, camera in hand and looking for the perfect photo opportunity, of wich there were many. Also whilst in town, we chanced upon some celebrity spotting. It was early evening, and as we were strolling down one of the alley ways, we heard a familiar voice coming up the street towards us. From a distance and due to the accent, all I could make out was it was a thin Englishman in a dark hat. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until he had passed us by, and I turned to Liza and was about to speak, when she beat me to it.

‘Was that Mick Jagger’? As it turned out it was, and the whole town was a buzz, whilst he was in town for a couple of days.

A typical scene as you cruise down the mighty Mekong River. Sometimes there would be a whole family about such a small boat.

After three very enjoyable days in Hoi Ann, we made our way back to Da Nang, along the way visiting the impressive Marble Mountains, as well as a stop off at China Beach. After a short stroll along the beach we visited a very busy seafood restaurant for lunch before we boarded the plane and flew back to HCMC. Once back in HCMC we booked into the very luxurious and recently renovated Hotel Majestic, before booking a three day tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is one of the world’s largest, with it’s origins somewhere in Tibet, it bends and winds it’s way through six countries in South East Asia, before it is emptied into the sea via the many hundreds of tributaries that make up the Delta. Our trip to the Delta was arranged at one of the many inexpensive travel agencies dotted around HCMC. You stay in very basic accommodation, and do a number of small tours to various tourist area’s where you are taught more about life in this part of the world. I generally dislike tours of this nature, and often frown upon them, but with the limited time we had it was the best way to get a small glimpse of the region.

My highlight of the tour was simply the pure pleasure of riding in a fast boat, down this extremely busy waterway.

As you make your way south, you pass a vast number of boats, barges and even the odd canoe, all with there passengers and cargo heading to their destination, wherever that may be. Upon returning to HCMC after our two nights and three days in the Delta, we were ready for a bit of rest and relaxation.

Vietnam is famous for its many great beaches, so we decided to head back up the coast to the small fishing village of Mui Ne. This small secluded village only 200km from HCMC has a long stretch of white sandy beach, where we would spend our last few days before flying home. The area is dotted with a vast range of accommodation and we managed to find a great place that was reasonably priced. The Sea Horse Resort was a series of luxury bungalows situated in a nice garden area, and only meters from the beach. We spent our days hanging out by the pool and going for walks along the beach, as well as doing a couple of small self arranged tours to some of the surrounding sights.

To our amazement it seems that Mui Ne is also famous for its enormous sand dunes.

The massive white dunes of Mui Ne. It's hard to believe this image is from Vietnam and not North Africa.

There are actually two area’s of sand dunes, with the smaller red dunes a short moto (motorcycle taxi) ride away, situated just behind the old fishing village, and then there are the more impressive white dunes, a longer but pleasant 45 minute ride away, again on the back of a moto. The white dunes were quite stunning and walking along them gave you that feeling of being in the Sahara, and not the tropics of Vietnam. We also did another half day tour to Ta Cu Mountain, an area famous for its Pagoda and the 49m long, reclining Buddha statue. Those with more time on their hands, and feeling a little more energetic, can walk up the mountain to the Pagoda, but we wimped out and took the cable car. Yes, that’s right the cable car!

After our time in Mui Ne, our trip was coming to an end and it was time to head home, so we caught a bus back to HCMC and checked back into the Majestic, where we spent our last couple of days chilling out. We also visited the sights a little further out from the main city centre, including a day tour to the infamous Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of town. The Cu Chi tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters.

Many opinions say that these tunnels were a key ingredient to the Viet Cong in resisting American operations and elongating the war, eventually concluding in an American withdrawal.

We both enjoyed our time in both Cambodia and Vietnam, and only just scratched the surface on what these two countries have to offer. We will no doubt return to Vietnam some time in the future, to visit the north of the country, and could not speak more highly of the hospitality we received in both countries. Both destinations were very safe to travel, and you also get great value for money.

Related Posts with Thumbnails Bookmark and Share