A Travellerspoint blog

Cu Chi Coup...

Going Underground

sunny 30 °C

9th March 2011

We finally got up in time for breakfast! In fact, we were eating omelettes in a bread roll (!) at 7:30 in the morning as we were off to see the famed Cu Chi tunnels. We didn’t really feel like eating much at all at this time of the day but knew we were in for a long day. We made our way over to the tourist office and waited for our coach to arrive which it did at 8:20. After making some more passenger stops along the way, our trip started in earnest and most people were nodding off in no time at all until our effervescent tour guide grabbed the microphone and introduced himself to us in the most appalling English we’d ever heard. In fact, he may as well have been talking Vietnamese! He was a very bubbly young chap who talked incessantly and, just as we thought things couldn’t get any worse, he decided he was going to serenade us and chose Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” to kick things off! At first we thought he was just having a joke with us but when he strained for the first few notes we knew he wasn’t... This particular rendition of such a popular song was so painful to our ears that we wanted to stick some nails down them and perforate our ear drums! He was so bad that the entire coach was wincing and laughing at the same time. Stew had tears rolling down his cheeks and a woman sitting directly behind us could hardly breathe and shrieked with laughter as every note and word was bellowed with gusto by our singing guide and we thought we would die when he screamed “Herro it me you rooking for?” at the top of his voice! It was absolutely hilarious and we were torn between wanting him to stop and wanting him to continue! He really did think he could sing and, just to prove this point, he then dived into a rendition of a popular Vietnamese ditty which provoked a similar reaction to his previous effort! Our stomachs were hurting and our faces were aching from laughing so much. When he had quit causing us so much pain he then set us some riddles to work out. Unfortunately, his English was so bad we didn’t have a clue what he was going on about! Ten out of ten for effort in keeping us entertained though! After a little while he must have sensed we were getting fed up with his constant talking and he elected to rest his larynx, no doubt saving his voice for The Gleen Gleen Glass of Home on the way back....
After driving past some lovely green scenery, vast rice paddies and through some little villages we came to our first stop – a lacquerware factory that employed disabled people who made lacquered boxes, furniture, plates, bowls, screens and pictures amongst other things. We were shown the various stages of manufacture and each one was meticulously performed. There was much rubbing down and smoothing of the object before the next stage and then more rubbing down etc. The finished products were quite beautiful and we were taken into the main warehouse where completed pieces were available for purchase.
After half an hour or so, we were back on the musical bus and on our way to the tunnels and it wasn’t too long before we were pulling into the car park, some 70km from Saigon. We all piled off and waited by some souvenir stalls for our guide to join us and we followed him down a path and stopped by a small pit. The pit walls had two small holes either side – entrances to tunnels. They were tiny!

Tunnel entrances - how could anyone fit through there?!

Tunnel entrances - how could anyone fit through there?!

Here he explained some things about the tunnels. There was an immense network of tunnels over 200km long and they were used by the Guerrilla forces to move around within and hide from enemy forces and proved so effective that they had enemy forces confused as to how fighters suddenly appeared seemingly from nowhere. They housed hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for the fighters as well as serving as communication and supply routes. The famous Tet Offensive was planned here in 1968. Life was hard though, our guide explained in his broken English. The tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Malaria was the biggest cause of death next to war wounds, and intestinal parasites were so common that almost one hundred percent of soldiers living in the tunnels had them at one time or another! Sometimes the Guerrilla fighters would be forced to remain in the tunnels for many days at a time because of carpet bombing operations by the US (when they tried to destroy them) or when enemy troops were scouring the area. As well as housing troops there were kitchens, tool-making rooms and weapon manufacturing workshops where Guerrillas would make landmines and other weapons from unexploded ordnance that they had retrieved.

Underground Hospital in the Cu Chi tunnels

Underground Hospital in the Cu Chi tunnels


Model of a bomb maker

Model of a bomb maker

We walked from the pit to an area of ground covered in dirt and leaves and gathered around our guide (who we nicknamed Bing!). He pointed to the ground and asked us what we could see. We saw nothing but a patch of dirt. He bent down and brushed some leaves and dirt aside and pulled open a tiny trapdoor! Inviting anyone to jump down the tiny tunnel, Stew decided to give it a go. It was very small and narrow with just enough room to bend your knees slightly and was more of a hiding hole than a tunnel.

Stew tries the spider hole for size!

Stew tries the spider hole for size!

Jen declined the invitation. From here we walked down a path through some trees and past many bomb craters to a bunker of sorts and watched a short propaganda movie on the uses of the tunnel during the conflict. After the film we walked a little further through the trees and the sound of gunfire echoed around us. Single shots followed by bursts of machine gun fire. We guessed that, for maximum effect, a soundtrack of weapons fire was being played over loudspeakers hidden in the woods to give the whole experience that authentic touch. Next we were shown some rooms with models showing how landmines and weapons were made as well as everyday tools. Even shrapnel was collected and put to use as something! Then it was time to try out a tunnel for real. We were warned that they are extremely small and narrow (but had actually been widened for tourists!) and we should not go down if we were in any way claustrophobic! We both climbed down and, torsos bent at the waist and almost crawling, we set off, our instructions were to come out at the next exit. It was incredibly hot down there and we were soaked in no time. Our legs and backs ached within seconds and we marvelled at how on earth anyone could have lived down here for so long – and these tunnels had been widened and heightened for tourists! We were very glad to find the exit and climbed up the small ladder to freedom, feeling the cool air as soon as our heads broke the surface, the sweat dripping from our red faces. We exited the tunnel and gathered with everyone else and walked to another hole in the floor. This one would be a longer crawl. We were both game and disappeared into the tiny entrance. It was quite a tricky step down to the flat part of the tunnel and Stew cracked his head as he ducked! Once again we were soaked and aching in seconds, stopping every now and then to rest our aching stomach muscles. It seemed like we were crawling forever and we began to wonder if we had missed the exit somewhere along the way! It was very dark – pitch black in places – and we and the people in front of us were using everything we had – cameras, cell phones – to create enough light ahead to see where we were going. We eventually came to the ladder and climbed to freedom, exiting into a large room.

Jen finally discovers the light at the end of the tunnel!

Jen finally discovers the light at the end of the tunnel!

We were in a kitchen and something was cooking! We didn’t know what it was, but we would find out before our day had ended! Once again the sounds of gunfire, crisp, brittle and brusque, filled the air and our ears as we headed further into the woods until we stopped at a destroyed US tank, minus its tracks and covered in bullet holes. From the look of the wreck whoever was in it at the time probably didn’t get to go home. It was a sobering thought. Just to the right of the tank were some models of Guerrillas and we all had a photo or two taken with them.

A bullet-riddled US Army tank

A bullet-riddled US Army tank


Us hanging with a couple of stiff locals!

Us hanging with a couple of stiff locals!

Bing called lunch and took us to the nearby cafe – complete with shooting range, the source of the eerie sounds of gunfire filling the woods! Here you can fire an M16 rifle, an AK-47 or an M60 machine gun – all for the price of around £1 a bullet! We opted for an ice cream each and a bottle of water! Stew tried to go and see the weapons but the gates were only opened for customers paying for bullets. After our small meal and a little look around some of the obligatory souvenir stalls attached to the cafe we were on our way to the next part of the park where we were to see some of the booby traps devised and built by the Guerrillas. They were terrible and the displays were backed by paintings depicting US army soldiers falling prey to them as they strode through the jungles. They were designed to maim rather than kill as they knew no injured soldier would be left to die and it would take at least two others to carry the injured one to safety, thereby effectively reducing the number of enemy soldiers fighting at any one time. The traps were as ingenious as they were deadly and all contained sharp spikes. The “Tiger Trap” consisted of a camouflaged trap door in the ground that swivelled in the middle. When the unsuspecting soldier stepped on it, the trap door swung downwards dropping the victim onto an array of sharp spikes sticking up from the floor some ten feet down. Rolling traps performed a similar job where rollers loaded with sharp spikes would rotate as the unwary soldier fell down the trap thus spiking his legs all the way up as he fell feet first onto the spikes below. The folding chair trap caused two sets of spikes to spring up either side of the victim, impaling him in the head, neck or upper back depending on how tall he was!

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A couple of the nasty booby traps used in the Vietnam War

A couple of the nasty booby traps used in the Vietnam War

There were others and they were all very gruesome and it sickened us to realise that these traps were used on human beings. The pain from getting caught in one must have been excruciating.
We had one more tunnel to crawl down and this one was very long, so we both decided to give this one a miss but stood and waited for some of the others in our party to give it a try. There were only a couple of them! They came out of the tunnel at a room with a few large benches in and we were invited to sit down and try one of the foods that would have been served up in the tunnels during the Vietnam War. It was Tapioca root dipped in sugar, salt and ground peanuts along with herbal tea and it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be (although we couldn’t honestly say we actually enjoyed it either!). This marked the end of our adventure and we were soon heading towards our coach via a display of dismantled unexploded ordnance and a number of souvenir stalls along the way selling all sorts of memorabilia including models of guns and planes all made from spent bullet shells, army lighters, knives, fake grenade cases and the like.

A collection of unexploded ordnance found in the area

A collection of unexploded ordnance found in the area

As we set off we wondered what was in store for us from our unpredictable tour guide Bing! Would he assault our poor ears with another song from his catalogue or would it be Silence is Golden?! Thankfully, as it turned out, he was pretty quiet on the way back and only grabbed the mike to ask us if we had all enjoyed the trip. He left us pretty much to admire the scenery racing past outside or to nod off. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief...
We arrived back in town at around 3pm and we headed straight for our coffee haunt – Sojo. Much to Stew’s disappointment his little lady friend wasn’t on duty but we enjoyed our coffee and sandwich before heading back to our room. Opting for a late afternoon siesta, we both slept for a few hours (Stew more so than Jen!) before heading out in the evening for something to eat and another wander around the many shops in the area. We headed back fairly early for a quick blast on the internet and an early night.

Posted by StewnJen 07:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Chillin´ at Uncle Ho´s...

S-S-S-S-Ho Chi Minh City!

sunny 32 °C

6th March 2011

Sleep and lots of it! We had a good rest last night but were still only up at 9am! Our first problem of the day came when Jen showered and plugged the hairdryer in – but nothing came out! Noticing that the light wasn’t on the TV Stew flicked the light switch – no lights. Power cut! Breakfast should be entertaining then... Once dressed, we made our way up to the rooftop restaurant to see what delights were on offer. The restaurant was small and narrow with just two rows of tables either side with around seven or eight tables in all. Finished in white with bamboo blinds suspended from the ceiling to the tops of the walls it was brilliant in the morning sun and dazzled us as we took our seats and afforded a view of the roofs of adjoining and nearby houses and businesses in the area. Sure enough, we were told that the menu was limited due to a power cut in the hotel and instead of the usual eggs, toast and coffee we’d be breakfasting on a bread roll with some jam and butter, a banana and orange juice! It wasn’t great but it was food and we were hungry enough to devour it all before heading out on our first day of sightseeing in Saigon! We had decided to make the must-see War Remnants Museum our first stop and, as it was another beautiful day we opted to walk. Armed with our map of the city given to us by Nungh we set off along the road, popping into various shops on the way, and watching life unfold on the streets of the city. The first thing we noticed about the area was the street hawkers. All adorned with conical hats and clothes of every colour and material, they walked, pushed carts or cycled up and down the bustling streets parading wares ranging from fruit to pastries while others struggled with carts or bags laden with cardboard, cans and plastic bottles. It was fascinating to watch them ply their trade and all seemed so content to do so.

A quiet corner of a street in the backpackers quarter, Saigon....

A quiet corner of a street in the backpackers quarter, Saigon....


A colourfully clad street seller plies her trade on the streets of Saigon

A colourfully clad street seller plies her trade on the streets of Saigon


A fruit seller literally peddles her wares in Ho Chi Minh City!

A fruit seller literally peddles her wares in Ho Chi Minh City!


A woman collects cardboard for money in Ho Chi Minh City

A woman collects cardboard for money in Ho Chi Minh City


A street trader carries her wares in Ho Chi Minh City

A street trader carries her wares in Ho Chi Minh City

There are many shops here to satisfy the tourist in all of us. Clothes, books, films, souvenirs and myriad art shops sit side by side. A favourite subject of the art shops here is the Afghan girl with the amazing green eyes captured on film by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry in 1985. Some were amazing reproductions and some weren’t so good. One art shop that captured Jen’s imagination made pictures using nothing but rice! The rice is baked for varying lengths of time to achieve all the colours required (from almost white to dark brown) to achieve the desired result. They were quite stunning and we watched a young artist while she worked. It was fascinating and very clever.
The backpacker’s district is a buzzing area but things began to quieten down and thin out as we headed out towards the museum. What did become very apparent was the sheer number of mopeds on the roads here! We came to a crossing and waited for the traffic to stop so we could get to the other side. The cars stopped and within seconds were engulfed and surrounded by hundreds of mopeds and motorbikes that seemed to come from absolutely nowhere. They are even driven on the pavements when the roads are full or when junctions are busy or need to be circumvented! Not fun when you have no idea they are behind you while you are walking down the street though!

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Motorbikes, Motorbikes everywhere!!

Motorbikes, Motorbikes everywhere!!

It was a long walk to the museum and we made it there after around 45 minutes – only to find it closed! Mental note to oneself – check opening times of museums beforehand! It was due to open at 13 :30 so we had a bit of time to kill and started walking to a nearby Pagoda that Nungh had pointed out for us on our map. We really shouldn’t have bothered! It was the most drab and uninspiring pagoda we had ever seen, so much so that we didn’t even bother taking a photograph of it and cannot remember its name! We turned around and headed for the Water Puppet theatre to book a couple of tickets for the 5pm performance. Water Puppetry is a long standing tradition dating back to the 11th century. Devised and performed by farmers working in the rice fields (when they flooded) as a way of keeping the children and villagers entertained (as well as the spirits appeased), it has continued ever since and shows were based on popular stories and legends of the time. Puppets are handmade from wood, hand painted in vivid, brilliant hues and lacquered. Most have moveable limbs and heads. Our walk took us through a small park where we came upon a group of around 15 youngsters all sitting in a circle and singing a song. They looked as though they were really enjoying themselves and were giggling as they sang. We slowed down as we passed them and applauded them when they had finished. This made them laugh and they applauded us loudly for applauding them! Entering the gate to the puppet theatre we walked through a small market selling mainly clothes and t-shirts with the odd candy stall and food hut until we came to the box-office. Keeping up with tradition, it was shut! Thankfully it was due to reopen within half an hour so we found a small cafe and sat down for a coffee and coke and waited.
With tickets in hand for the 5pm performance we retraced our steps back to the War Remnants Museum and, thankfully, that had reopened too. The grounds surrounding the building are home to a number of aircraft and tanks that were used in the Vietnam War including a reconnaissance Cessna, a USAF F-5A fighter jet, a UH-1 Huey combat helicopter and a M48 Patton tank. There were also replicas of some of the “tiger cells” where prisoners were kept chained up but, after seeing one cell and after what we had witnessed in Cambodia, we weren’t in the mood to see any more so we walked up the steps and into the main building. The museum used to be known as the Museum of American War Crimes and, although renamed to the War Remnants Museum when relations with the US returned to normal, the theme is still very one-sided, with the US coming out as the bad guys. The causes of the war are explored in some detail but the majority of the exhibits here lean towards the heroes on the Vietnamese side and the atrocities carried out by US soldiers. A number of different weapons including machine guns, rifles and rocket launchers were showcased as well as a large part of a B-52 bomber shot down over Vietnam. Stories and pictures of Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately known here!) and his struggle against the South Vietnamese and US forces are explained in words and pictures. More harrowing stories were found on the second floor. They were of photographers sent to report on the war effort, most with their final photographs before they were killed. The most tragic stories, though, were of the massacres such as the My Lai massacre when US soldiers turned their weapons on a two villages full of unarmed men, women (some elderly) and children (some small babies) and left them in a heap by the roadside, in ditches or outside their homes before setting the entire villages alight. We saw some people walking away crying after reading the accounts. Together with photographs and stories showing the effects of Napalm, Agent Orange and other toxins used on the Vietnamese people and their continued effects today, the whole experience was fascinating but very, very sad and we came out of there some 2 hours later quite in need of some cheering up!

Lots of hardware outside the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

Lots of hardware outside the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City


A Cessna A-37B Dragonfly outside the Saigon War Remnants Museum

A Cessna A-37B Dragonfly outside the Saigon War Remnants Museum


A replica of a "Tiger Cell" at the War Remnants Museum, Saigon

A replica of a "Tiger Cell" at the War Remnants Museum, Saigon


Part of a B-52 Bomber shot down over Vietnam

Part of a B-52 Bomber shot down over Vietnam


Firearms used during the Vietnam War now housed in the War Remnants Museum

Firearms used during the Vietnam War now housed in the War Remnants Museum

We had half an hour to get to the Water Puppet theatre and got there in plenty of time and were shown to our seats in the small auditorium. We didn’t have a clue what to expect and but felt it would lift our spirits whatever happened! It wasn’t too long before the lights went out, the twangs, whines and thumps of the music started and the curtains slid aside to reveal a small water filled pool with a small orchestra either side of it. The musicians doubled as the voices of the puppet characters and many different puppets glided across the water. Men, women, fish, ducks and dragons zipped across and under the surface of the milky waters. Brilliantly coloured monsters swam and dived in and out of the water as boats and canoes floated around. It was very clever and not once did we see even a glimpse of the puppeteers. The show lasted around forty minutes and, although entirely in Vietnamese leaving us with absolutely no clue what had just gone on, we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle if not the grating music!

The stage of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet theatre in Saigon

The stage of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet theatre in Saigon


Water Puppet characters row a dragon boat in Ho Chi Minh City

Water Puppet characters row a dragon boat in Ho Chi Minh City


The Orchestra play the music and lend their voices to the Water Puppet characters

The Orchestra play the music and lend their voices to the Water Puppet characters


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The Dance of the Water Fairies at the Water Puppet show, Saigon

The Dance of the Water Fairies at the Water Puppet show, Saigon

It had indeed lifted our spirits and had also given us an appetite and we elected to have an early meal on the way back. The sunlight was just beginning to fade as we started our trek back and more than once had to quick-step out of the way of a pavement bound motorcycle and run flat out to cross a busy road. Back in the familiar surroundings of the backpacker’s quarter we found a Pizzeria and tucked in with gusto before taking a slow, leisurely stroll along the buzzing streets and past the packed street bars selling cheap beer (you could always tell the cheapest ones as the pavement was crammed with people!) back to our little hotel, venturing in and out of some of the shops on the way. We felt a guidebook on Vietnam would be a good idea and couldn’t believe it when we happened across a bookshop selling the Lonely Planet guides for the equivalent of £3! Quite happy with our stroke of luck we went back to our room to do some research for the rest of our stay in both Saigon and Vietnam in general. As we flicked through the pages, the reason for the £3 price tag became clear. Every page was a photocopy! These people are nothing if not dedicated in their pursuit of a quick buck! The shop had been full of guidebooks on every country imaginable! We just had to laugh but it proved good enough for our use and we went through it as best we could (some of the pages were illegible!) until the day’s efforts caught up with us and we gave in to sleep.

7th March 2011

Woke up to find out we had missed breakfast! It was 11am and neither of us had stirred once in the night! We jumped out of bed as we needed to go to the Chinese Consulate today to get our visas for China, which would take about 3 or 4 days apparently so we would also need to extend our stay here. We got showered and dressed and went to see our ever helpful and smiling receptionist Nungh to ask to stay for three more days and for her advice on travelling to the Consulate. Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked so that meant another errand added to the day’s itinerary – find another hotel. When we asked her the cost of a taxi to the Chinese Consulate as we needed visas for China, Nungh told us it should only cost a couple of hundred Dong but she could sort the visas for us and get them within 3 days! We nearly bit her hand off! She told us we would need two passport photos and where to get them done, and the address of the hotel we would be staying in once we’d found one! It was at this point, after she had told us the cost of the taxi, that we asked her how much we should expect to pay for a taxi from the bus station. No more than two hundred dong! She was appalled when we told her how much we had been charged in a metered taxi! Our very first taxi ride in Vietnam and we’d been screwed without knowing it! Ah well – nothing changes! With a bad taste in our mouths we walked out into the heat of the midday sun and went in search of the photography shop, a small place in the centre of the main thoroughfare offering all manner of services including photo enlargements, photographs for sale, bespoke portraits, CD and DVD burning and, of course, passport photos. After having our snaps taken, we were told they would be ready at 3pm so that gave us time to sort out another hotel, of which there were many, and we wandered up and down the streets trying to find one that looked half decent. We settled on a small one a little way up the main street that wasn’t too far from our current hotel and went in to ask the rates and to see a room. It was more expensive but the room was nice so we booked it for three nights and paid a deposit. By this time our bellies were complaining so we found a coffee shop called Sozo and had some lunch. This place became our regular coffee and lunch haunt as not only was the coffee and food delicious but they only employed disabled and underprivileged people in order to give them a chance in life, which we thought was brilliant. They were so nice too! Stew took a shine to the little cashier lady who couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches and seemed to be in almost constant pain but not once did the smile slip from her little face when she addressed a customer. It was still too early to collect our passport photos so we went in search of the local supermarket to get some things and in doing so passed a lovely looking little hotel that we had simply overlooked and that was actually closer to where we were currently staying. We went in and asked the smiley young guy running the place his rates (they were much cheaper than where we had just booked!) and to see a room. The room was quite nice too so we told him we would be back soon and went back to the hotel we had booked earlier and got our deposit back! After reserving a room at the new hotel we found the supermarket and got some things before collecting our passport photos and taking everything back to our room, giving Nungh all the information she required for our China visas, holding our breaths as we handed over our passports... That part was the worrying part! After cooling down a little in our air-conditioned room we headed out once again, this time to book a tour for the day after tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a set of tunnels dug out during the Vietnam war that were used by troops to move around literally under the noses of enemy forces without being detected. After booking our trip we just went for a wander around some of the streets we hadn’t visited and just ambled in and out of the shops before deciding to go and see the night market. It was quite a walk but it was yet another wonderfully warm night so we set off, marvelling once again at the huge numbers of motorbikes on the roads! At a set of traffic signals, when the swarm of two wheelers enveloped all the vehicles around them, you could see half a mile down the road there were so many headlights clustered together! It was blindingly bright and the noise as they all pulled away together was amazing! The night market, though, was not amazing at all. In fact we wished we hadn’t bothered walking all the way there as it wasn’t at all what we were expecting. There were two lines of stalls that stretched about fifty metres and they were selling the usual belts, fake watches and clothes. It took us about five minutes to do the circuit and before we knew it we were walking back towards the backpacker’s quarter. It was dark by now and we somehow took a wrong turn and the walk ended up being much longer than it should have been! Our legs were aching and our stomachs rumbling so we found an Italian restaurant to placate our bellies and had a really nice meal before trudging back to our hotel to pack our bags. We ended up watching a movie on the laptop instead – we can pack in the morning! Tomorrow we would be moving out.

8th March 2011

Yet again our weary bodies failed to wake us in time and we missed breakfast again! We showered, dressed and begrudgingly packed our bags then hauled our stuff down to reception to check out. We made sure Nungh had all the information she would need for our visas before we said our goodbyes and ventured outside into another stifling day. The heat was incredible and was exacerbated by the packs on our fronts and backs! We were melting before we’d even reached the end of the alleyway! Thankfully it only took us about ten minutes to reach our new abode but, once there, had to haul ourselves and our bags up three flights of stairs as there was no lift here either! After washing some clothes and hanging them on the huge fan fixed to the wall to aid drying, we got some things together and set off towards the Independence Palace, the place where the South Vietnamese President surrendered to the North Vietnamese in 1975 heralding the end of the Vietnam War. It was another long walk in the baking sun and when we finally got there we were so pleasantly underwhelmed.... it looked like a cross between the Thunderbird’s Tracy house and Harrow civic centre rather than a palace! The place was huge and very sixties – all grey/white concrete and glass surrounded by ornate black gates and railings and carefully manicured grounds. We’d walked a long while to get here so it seemed daft not to go in and take a look around. After paying a small entrance fee we walked along a driveway, passing a huge fountain in the middle of the front lawn and entered the Palace. There wasn’t much to see downstairs other than a large auditorium with scores of green chairs neatly lined up facing a small stage with a golden bust of Uncle Ho staring back at them on a backdrop of bright red velvet curtains over a varnished wooden lecturn. Two further floors revealed the living quarters of the President and his family, including the bedrooms, dining room, areas for entertaining guests (including a bar and dance floor on the roof together with a helicopter!) and kitchens. The other rooms were for receiving important guests, the banqueting room (complete with a gorgeous wall to wall panelled mural at the far end), reception rooms for the President’s, Vice President’s and President’s wife’s guests, the official offices of the President and various meeting rooms. The basement revealed the war rooms with many corridors and offices housing different telecommunications equipment, maps, meeting rooms, and getaway vehicles for the President and his entourage! It was all very interesting and one area set aside in the basement showed photographs and the history of the palace during the conflict and the famous shot of the tank bursting through the gates, liberating the palace from the South Vietnamese government. A similar tank to the actual one that liberated the Palace in 1975 stands in the grounds outside.

The Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

The Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


A golden bust of "Uncle Ho" in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

A golden bust of "Uncle Ho" in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


The Banqueting Hall of the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

The Banqueting Hall of the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


The Presidential Office in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

The Presidential Office in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


The Presidential Reception room in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

The Presidential Reception room in the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City


A similar tank to the one that burst through the gates of the Independence Palace, Saigon

A similar tank to the one that burst through the gates of the Independence Palace, Saigon

After having our fill of the civic centre lookalike we elected to walk the fairly short walk to the Notre Dame Cathedral and the nearby famous Post Office building, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel when Saigon was part of French Indochina in the early part of the 20th century. The Notre-Dame Basilica is the city’s main church and looks only a little like its Paris counterpart from the outside. Unfortunately we were unable to go inside as there was something taking place at the time of our visit but Stew managed to get a snap of the inside when he quickly stuck his camera through the gates just as someone opened the door!

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3hcmcnotredame1.jpgThe beautiful Notre-Dame Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City

The beautiful Notre-Dame Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City

Disappointed at being unable to see the interior we turned our attentions to just across the street to the magnificent Saigon Central Post Office building. The facade, although absolutely majestic, does not compare to the grandeur and sheer magnificence of the interior. Kept absolutely immaculate it is painted in pastel yellow and cream with a high, arched ceiling inset with skylights covered with shiny, black ironwork. Highly polished, dark wood booths (which were originally telephone kiosks but are now mainly ATMs!) flanked the entrance while the counters sat directly below the arched ceiling. All of this was watched carefully by the eyes of Uncle Ho through a huge portrait that hung on the far end of the hall. Above each row of booths were clocks showing the time in various countries around the world. The floor was a complex arrangement of small blocks of tiles in various colours forming different shapes and lines. It was absolutely stunning and we walked around for a while and even visited the small souvenir shops on either side of the vast entrance.

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The amazing Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City

The amazing Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City

After a little while we went in search of an energy boost to revive our flagging legs but first had to ‘enjoy’ a visit to a shopping centre for Jen to quench the female desire for some retail therapy! Next on the agenda was food and, as it was getting dark, we opted to dine closer to home and so headed towards the backpacker district where all the restaurants and bars reside. On the way back we passed a cinema and decided to pop in to see what was playing. The new animated film Rango was on in 3D so we queued up for tickets... it was full! We agreed we would give it another go tomorrow so carried on our walk back for something to eat. Declining the offers from touts to dine and drink in the huge and colourful Crazy Buffalo Bar (complete with massive neon buffalo head adorning the entire building!) on the corner of the main street, we elected to revisit the Italian we dined at last night as the meal was so delicious. This time we went for the Risotto and, once again, were not disappointed. Feeling more than full and more than content we trudged home (grabbing an ice cream from 7-11 on the way despite almost overflowing with food!) and flopped on our new comfy bed for the night.

The bright and loud Crazy Buffalo Bar in Ho Chi Minh City

The bright and loud Crazy Buffalo Bar in Ho Chi Minh City

Posted by StewnJen 16:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Our Gateway to Vietnam...

Sihanoukville

sunny 32 °C

2nd March 2011

After a lazy day yesterday where all we did was eat, watch tv and blog (and go out for the obligatory Pizza!) we were up, packed and ready early this morning. We were a little tired having been kept awake by some idiot in the adjoining room playing music at a ridiculous level until Stew had had enough of it by 1am and politely asked him to turn it down! We were leaving Phnom Penh today and were downstairs eating our small breakfast at 7am and reviving our shattered selves with Cambodian coffee while we waited for our tuk tuk to pick us up at 7:15am and take us to the bus terminal where we would be boarding our transport to Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia. Although a beach resort, we were not heading there for any other reason than to obtain our visas for Vietnam from the consulate in the town. (Our research on the internet had told us that it was a fifteen minute procedure at the most and it was not possible to get Vietnamese visas at any of the border posts). Our driver was late and, because it was a bus we were catching that should leave roughly on time, we started getting a little edgy, asking the guys who made our breakfast to phone the bus company and ask where our transport was. No sooner had he lifted the phone, our driver turned up. We recognised him immediately as the guy who drove us here a few days ago and whose services we didn’t require the following day. He was more subdued than the first time we met him! We said hello but got a sulky grunt in return. We squeezed everything and ourselves back onto his wagon and trundled off, our driver completing the fifteen minute journey in total silence, and once we’d arrived at the terminal we unloaded our bags and took a seat on a bench while our bus was being readied. We were surprised, therefore, when a short time later that same sour faced, petulant driver came and sat with us and asked us what we had been doing in Phnom Penh. He asked us if we had visited Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng (the S-21 Prison) and when we said we had he asked us what we thought of them and Pol Pot. We told him our feelings on the Killing Fields and S-21 and exactly what we thought of Pol Pot and his insane ideas. His next comment absolutely floored us both and raised an anger in Stew so strong he had to get up and walk away. He told us he loved Pol Pot and agreed with what he did because without him he wouldn’t have a job! We couldn’t believe what we were hearing and told him so. We were so disgusted we just got up and walked off. We weren’t sure whether or not he was serious or just playing Devil’s Advocate, saying it to shock us as we had neglected to use his services as a driver during our stay. We were so glad that we didn’t give him the job of driving us around Phnom Penh! Thankfully, at almost the same time as we got up and moved away from him, they called us to board the bus so we lugged our stuff over, stowed the backpacks in the hold and climbed aboard. The bus pulled out of the terminal on time and we were set for our five hour plus journey southwards. The journey itself was nondescript and we zoned out for almost the entire trip with our earplugs firmly screwed into our ears and had a single lunch break in another roadside cafe around the halfway point. Once again we chose to dine on our snacks of biscuits and crisps rather than risk going for anything on offer here. The place was probably perfectly ok but we opted to give it a miss. When we did finally arrive in Sihanoukville it was, once again, at the customary bus station, some way out of town and, as before, we were required to employ the services of one of the many tuk tuk drivers to hand. Once again it was feeding time at the zoo when we all disembarked and headed for the luggage hold. The drivers fell on us like ants to jam and bargaining a price with them was impossible. They all stuck to their price because they knew the alternative for us would be a long walk! We tried in vain arguing with our driver that he was asking too much for such a small distance and he showed us a map and told us our hotel was a long way away. We just wanted to get there and in the end just agreed on the fee, carried our bags to his cart and set off for the White Beach hotel on the beachfront. It wasn’t very far at all and we were there within five minutes, both of us voicing our displeasure to the driver for being conned yet again. He actually apologised and said he couldn’t lower his price because nobody else would! He helped us unload our stuff, we paid him his money and we walked out of the hot sun and into the cool, bright reception of the hotel. After the formalities were completed, we carried our bags to the lift and then to our room. It was a pleasant room and fairly large with two, wide beds, a long unit across the wall for storage, and a small, flat screen TV. Our first impressions of Sihanoukville itself, however, were not so impressive. Although the hotels and properties on the beach road (including the one we were staying in) were impressive and mostly new builds, the area itself was quite scruffy and unwelcoming. Feeling peckish, and Jen wanting to see the beach and the sea, we crossed over the road to the beachfront to find somewhere to eat. The restaurants and cafes on the beachfront itself were straw roofed, timber constructions in one long line, almost directly on the sand. None of them were in the least bit appetizing but we were hungry and chose the nicest looking cafe, taking a seat looking out over the scruffy sands and to the waves lapping the shore. Choosing something simple to fill us up we opted for a cheeseburger and chips. Nice and easy. Not too difficult. Can’t go far wrong with one of those ..... What was actually brought to our table was a French stick cut in two, with lettuce upon which was piled a layer of minced beef, complete with fat still dripping from it, and with the top part of the bread covered in a thin layer of Dairy Lea spread! It was quite disgusting and neither of us could eat more than a bite. Stew called the waitress over and told her that this was not a cheeseburger! The reply was a shrugged “I know, but that is all we have”! The chips were ok so we made do with those. Jen decided to eat the bread on its own so proceeded to scrape the minced beef and lettuce onto her plate before gingerly tucking in to the baton. Out of the corner of his eye, Stew noticed a shape looming before us and looked up to find a bedraggled, dishevelled, filthy figure standing in front of us, both hands clasped together in humility staring goggle-eyed at the mess sitting on our plates. Although we were staring goggle-eyed at the mess on our plates too, it was for an entirely different reason! We motioned for him to sit and eat but what he did next quite shocked us. He produced a dirty plastic bag and emptied the contents of both our plates into it! At almost exactly the same time, the waitress turned up with our bill and just smiled at the poor man as he cleared our meals. Stew took some money out of his pocket to pay the bill and thought the vagrant was going to have a cardiac arrest as he stared at the money, his eyes bulging in their sockets and he started to whimper pathetically, pointing at the cash before clasping his hands together again. We felt so bad for him that we paid for our meal and handed him some money for which we received an almost embarrassed and pitiful look and, once more, the hands went together and he bowed as he backed out of the beach cafe and trudged up the road. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only beggar who wandered the beach front, hands held out in front of them. Some kids came and stood in front of us, waiting for us to finish our drinks so that they could claim the cans as they clearly received money for what they manage to collect. We walked back across the road and back to our room, quite sickened by what had just occurred as well as the meal! After a long while of doing very little, hunger overtook us again so we elected to go for a little walk up the road to see what was around there. It was almost pitch black as we left the hotel, the bright stars and some dim lights a little way up the road offering the only illumination. There were very few people around and it made us feel quite uneasy. While staying at Rosy’s in Siem Reap, we were warned of the beach area in Sihanoukville as muggings were not uncommon, especially at night. Indeed, a guest at Rosy’s was approached by two men while walking in Sihanoukville and they demanded, at knifepoint, that she hand over her handbag and money (unfortunately for her, she had her passport in her handbag at the time!). Undeterred we sauntered on in the humid night air and, after ten minutes or so, happened across a mini-mart of sorts. Deciding that was an easier (and probably safer!) option, we chose a load of rubbish like biscuits, crisps and soft drinks to see us through the night and walked back to the hotel. Our sugary, syrupy supper laid on our stomachs as we laid on our backs and looked forward to the morning, when we could fulfil our mission and, if all went well, obtain our visas for Vietnam!

3rd March 2011

Today is visa day. We were keen to get our visas for Vietnam and to leave Cambodia tomorrow so didn’t want anything to go wrong. We were tucking in to our obligatory eggs, toast and coffee in the white-walled restaurant atop the hotel at a fairly early (for us!) 8am. It was another beautiful day as we ate and chatted, looking out every now and then over the wall and out to the sea beyond the grass roofed bars and cafes on the beachfront. Ready for our all important task, we made sure we had all the necessary documents before walking out of the cool, white interior of the hotel and into the hot, yellow glare of the morning sun to track down a passing tuk tuk. We didn’t have to look very far as one was waiting in the parking area just outside! We asked what the fee would be to take us to the consulate and prepared to barter a decent price. Feigning indifference when our suggested fee wasn’t accepted we started walking away (always a good ploy!) and the driver quickly changed his mind and accepted our price. Hopping aboard, we trundled away, enjoying the sun and the cool breeze flowing over us as we chugged into the town and beyond to the Vietnam Consulate. The trip lasted a refreshing fifteen minutes and we were soon standing inside a small building that could have been a small town library. It contained a wooden table around which were six chairs, posters and leaflets adorned the walls and a small glass windowed counter sat at the far end. The place was empty but for the pleasant official who handed us the required forms and we sat down at the table to fill them in. Once completed, we handed them back with the correct fees and a passport sized photograph each. By now we had been joined by two other couples going through the same process, and within ten minutes we were walking out of the door with visas in hand and back to our waiting driver who returned us to our hotel safe and sound. The first item on our agenda was to book our escape route out of Cambodia which we did at reception. The journey was to be by overnight sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is still known). Buoyed by our successful day so far we went back to sleep for a few hours, spent the rest of the day watching TV and updating the blog until our stomachs started complaining and we ventured out once more, this time choosing a side road to walk up where we found a few more eateries. A little reluctantly because of our previous episode with the beachfront cafe, we chose a restaurant that had pizza on the menu just to be completely safe! After ordering, we waited an hour for our pizzas having asked a couple of times if there was any danger at all in getting them tonight! Jen’s Hawaiian turned up complete with green peppers! It was all frustratingly amusing and we now couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come. We were done with Cambodia and were really looking forward to Vietnam as we wandered back to our room in the black of night and went to bed.

4th March 2011

Checkout time was at noon, so we didn’t bother to rush at all this morning. We went for breakfast quite late (just before they stopped serving it in fact!) and returned to the room to finish off packing our things. We had a long wait for the bus as it was not due to arrive to collect us until 19:30. We were already wondering what sort of bus was going to arrive. We had been assured it was a sleeper bus, but you never know what you are going to get here! Packed and downstairs by midday, Jen checked us out while Stew plugged the laptop into their reception wall socket and the both of us sat and updated our blog until our bellies moaned at us for neglecting them for so long. We also wanted to make sure we ate as late as possible in preparation for the long night’s journey ahead. By 17:30 we were famished and needed nourishment so headed out to the same road we ended up at last night but elected to give the same restaurant a miss and walked on a little further before choosing another establishment that looked exactly the same as every other one along that street! This one was chosen because it had some identifiable pasta dishes on the menu! On sitting down we were served by a young girl and ordered our meals and drinks but became somewhat confused when the same guy who served us at the restaurant last night came walking in and started moving tables and chairs around! He saw the puzzled looks on our faces, smiled and told us he owned both restaurants! He and some others then started moving the tables and chairs under cover as the owner was sure it was going to rain – but he left us where we were! We sat chatting, enjoying our drinks and the cool evening breeze but kept a wary eye on what was happening above our heads while we waited for our meals to arrive. Ordering a meal around here is something of a lottery as you never know what is going to be on your plate when it is finally placed in front of you but, thankfully, our pasta meals looked pretty normal and tasted good too! Keeping tabs on the time as well as the weather, the pair of us ate up quicker than normal, paid our bill and were heading back to the hotel before the rains and the bus were due to arrive. Only one of them turned up – it was our bus and it was precisely on time too. Not only that but we were very pleasantly surprised to find that it was indeed a sleeper bus! After placing our backpacks in the hold below, we climbed aboard, obeyed the grouchy driver’s barked command to remove our shoes and walked on. There were three rows of ‘beds’ – two rows side by side on the right side of the bus and one row on the left side with a narrow aisle between the rows. Our beds were side by side and we stowed our remaining luggage (our rucksacks and a bag containing snack items) by our legs and got as comfy as we could. A short way into the trip we pulled out the laptop, plugged in our earphones and sat watching some TV programmes we had downloaded prior to leaving the UK. We were more than comfortable in our little zone and things were going really well! Well, that is, until the three hour mark when we pulled into Phnom Penh. We must be picking up more passengers we remarked. But, no. We should not have been so surprised really! We were told to get off the bus as this was as far as it was going and to wait for another one! It was utter confusion and chaos. People were milling around not knowing what to do, including us. In the end Stew walked over to a ramshackle booth and queued behind a gaggle of people all filling out forms. Pushing his way to the front he asked a guy standing behind the crumbling, makeshift counter what the hell was going on and was told we needed new tickets for the second bus and for those new tickets we had to fill out a form and present our passports. There was no explanation and no eye contact. After fetching the necessary documents and queuing again, we completed the forms, handed over the passports for verification (necessary as we would be crossing the border) and were given fresh tickets. Still nobody knew when our bus would arrive. Every time a new one came in, we all assumed that was the one only to be told it wasn’t. At around midnight our ride finally pulled in and we joined the crush of aggravated, tired souls around the luggage hold before climbing aboard. We were disappointed, but not surprised, to find it wasn’t a sleeper bus. The company had supplied us, for the longest section of the journey and overnight at that, with an ordinary bus. It had very little leg room, even for us, and was quite uncomfortable. We were tired, irritable and extremely fed up with being ripped off in Cambodia. You expect to be ripped off at least once in almost every country you visit and you can deal with that, but here, it seemed to us anyway, that we were being screwed over at every turn. We couldn’t wait to get out and couldn’t wait to get into Vietnam. But would things be any different there? Only time would tell. For now, though, we were still on the road and willing for the end to be in sight. After a brief stop for a comfort break we headed off once more into the night until at around 6am we pulled into yet another grotty looking roadside restaurant where we were asked to get off the bus. Everyone piled off and into the eatery and we just found a table and sat down without ordering anything. Suddenly we saw the luggage being hauled out of the hold and dumped onto the wet, muddy floor! Stew ran over and asked the driver what the hell was going on and just got a shake of the head in reply. Beginning to seethe a little, Stew grabbed the guy and, in no uncertain terms, asked again what was happening. The driver just grunted and walked off! We were then informed that our luggage was being removed because another bus was on its way to pick us up and take us over the border because the border license for the bus we were currently on had expired and couldn’t go across into Vietnam! Everyone was pretty annoyed at this point, but there is absolutely nothing you can do but grin and bear it, smile and wave boys – smile and wave! We waited .....and waited ..... and waited for over two hours before the relief bus arrived! The luggage was stacked into the hold and we all piled on, sat down and set off again – for a whole five minutes before we came to the border! Off we all got once again and presented our passports to the immigration officers who stamped our visas for exit and we climbed back on the bus. Two minutes later we were climbing off the bus yet again and as we did so, our driver’s assistant asked everyone for their passports so that, while we were queuing to put our bags through security, he could get them all stamped and checked, saving time. We were reluctant to do this but, yet again, had very little option but to comply! We lugged our bags through the Vietnamese immigration terminal where they were scanned and were thankfully handed our passports back as we walked out of the building, stowed our luggage and boarded the bus for, hopefully, the final time. At last we were in Vietnam and on our way to Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC or Saigon depending on your age or preference! We preferred Saigon as it still evokes so much from the seventies. Feeling completely exhausted and frustrated we finally pulled into the bus terminal at 11am – a full five hours later than our scheduled arrival time! Unfortunately we weren’t out of the woods yet as we still had to find our way to our hostel in the backpackers district of Saigon. No sooner had our feet touched Vietnamese soil than the familiar sound of taxi drivers hawking their availability filled our ears. No tuk tuks, just proper taxis! We grabbed the first one that came to us and asked how much the fare would be to our new home. Our driver didn’t speak much English and just pointed to the meter. A metered taxi! A proper fare at last – no negotiating, no bartering but a proper taxi! We were relieved we didn’t have to go through that particular charade as we just couldn’t be bothered with it at that time! Luggage stowed and bodies flopped into the comfy back seat, we were on our way – suddenly realising, as we were weaving in and out of flowing traffic in the way that only a taxi driver can manage, that we didn’t have any Vietnamese currency. We had to ask our driver to stop at an ATM on the way! He understood that ok and chose one a few minutes away from our hostel. With cash in pocket we drove a little further down a very busy road and stopped at the end of a small alleyway where our driver told us that our little hotel was just a few metres up on the left hand side. Stepping out of the cool aircon and back into the blazing heat and scorching sun, the last thing we wanted on our weary bodies were our heavy backpacks and rucksacks! Donning them was like carrying a body on our backs! We paid the driver, thanked him and walked into the relative cool of the narrow alley, lined with small street cafes and stalls – but no hotel! We just couldn’t believe it! The driver had dropped us off at the wrong place! We ran out to the main road again but he had already disappeared. Jen popped into a hotel and asked for directions and luckily we weren’t too far away but it was a pretty long and uncomfortable walk in the oppressive heat. Still seething and even more weary we finally came to our lodgings and gleefully dropped our bags in reception and almost hugged the receptionist, a lovely young Vietnamese girl named Nungh who made us feel most welcome. All we actually wanted to do was go to our room and collapse on the bed and this is exactly what we did – after we had climbed the three sets of stairs to our room as there was no lift! The door opened into our small, windowless room, our bags dropped where we stood and we collapsed, fully clothed, on the most fantastic bed we had seen in over a day!
Jen woke first – five hours later – before waking Stew from his deep slumber and we showered, changed clothes and hit the streets of Saigon – our very first purchase being a delicious looking (but not tasting!) ice cream from a small store just down the road. We continued round the corner but there wasn’t a great deal going on so turned around and walked in the opposite direction and turned right into the main thoroughfare. It was full of every type of store available – art shops, laundry services, hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, bookshops, clothing stores, photographic services and many more. It was a smorgasbord of businesses for the backpacker, traveller and tourist! Very busy, very colourful and noisy with a plethora of different smells radiating from the cafes, bars, coffee shops and eateries. We settled on the strongest (and nearest!) aroma that filled our nostrils – an Indian curry house! The smells made our mouths water and we were welcomed in by an elderly Indian man who we presumed to be the owner. The place wasn’t exactly bustling with diners but we were hungry and willing to give it a go. The meal was reasonably priced which was just as well because it was just about a reasonable curry! It filled us up enough though and we walked back to our hotel once again feeling the onset of weariness. It had been a difficult non-event of a day and we wanted to forget it and make the most of the next few days in Saigon. We headed straight to our hotel, straight to our room, straight to bed and straight to sleep.

Posted by StewnJen 14:45 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful....

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

sunny 30 °C

24th February 2011

Jen’s back was much worse this morning and we decided to extend our stay by a couple of days in order for her to rest it as it was painful for her just to walk after a little while. Instead we stayed in bed until 11am before the call of the irresistible egg and bacon roll proved too much of a temptation! Eyes were on us again from across the road as we indulged in our near-daily ritual but we just smiled and waved! After popping a couple of painkillers Jen felt a little better so she hit the internet while Stew played pool with Smiley, a fun, cheerful chap from Norwich who would soon be running the place while a very pregnant owner and her husband disappeared to have their baby! After coming a very close second at pool, Stew joined Jen in our room and we elected to visit one final temple before our passes became invalid from tomorrow. A quick look in our trusty tourist map and a guidebook and we settled on Preah Khan, not too far from Ta Prohm. Both these temples were built by the same king, Jayavarman VII and, as he based the main image of Ta Prohm on his mother, so he based the main image of Preah Khan on his father and built it on the site of his victory over the invading Chams in 1191. Grabbing our cameras and heading outside to make someone’s afternoon, a waiting tuk tuk driver sat up and noticed us straight away, offering his services immediately and we told him we wanted to visit Preah Khan. We climbed in his nicely trimmed Cadillac of a tuk tuk, with chrome bars and red velvet cushions, and headed off temple-bound once again. Arriving there and with no street vendors to surround us, we walked up the dirt road and came upon Preah Khan, another beautifully dilapidated temple. This temple, though, was in a much better state of ‘disrepair’ than Ta Prohm and the information board outside stated that the preservation work is being carried out without disturbing the natural balance of the complex with regard to the trees growing within the site. We walked everywhere in this wonderful place, exploring every crevice and crack we could find, marvelling at the colossal trees balanced delicately on roofs and straddling huge walls. Walking out of the rear of the temple onto a huge stone landing gave a wondrous view of the back of the temple, complete with gigantic tree resting its massive roots on the roof and down the walls! We walked around for a couple of hours before retracing our steps back when we came upon a lovely old lady with close-cropped, grey hair selling incense sticks for the Buddha image that is still prayed to today. Without a tooth in her head, she had a wonderfully cheeky smile!

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The wonderfully spooky Preah Khan Temple

The wonderfully spooky Preah Khan Temple


That cheeky smile!

That cheeky smile!

Jen’s back was complaining by now and so we finished our exploration and walked back down the dirt path to our driver .... who was no longer there! Looking around, we noticed there wasn’t a single tuk tuk in the area so couldn’t even commandeer another one! We were not impressed and didn’t know our way back if we had to walk it – and it would be a very long walk! We decided to give him five minutes before deciding what to do and within a few minutes a car pulled up in front of us and a man wound his window down. It was our driver! Apparently he had agreed to take someone to Angkor Wat to see the sunset and after dropping them off his tuk tuk broke down so he went all the way back to his home to get his car to come and pick us up! We were very thankful of this and gave him a tip when he had dropped us off back home. We went to our room and rested our aching limbs (and Jen’s back) and flicked through the photos we had taken during the day until our bellies told us they needed filling! Deciding we had enough energy to make it to the market area we set off alongside the river’s edge and returned to the restaurant that made the nice sweet and sour chicken. We chose to sit by the street so we could watch the people go by. It was a bit of a mistake as not only did the flies pester us but so did some street sellers as they passed by! One of them was a young lad with one leg and pretty good English who was selling hand-painted silk pictures. He asked us if we would like any and out of politeness we said we would have a look. Flicking through them we found them to be quite plain and not very good. Neither of us really liked any of them and so handed them back to the lad saying no thank you, not for us. He wasn’t overly impressed with that and said thank you for looking and not buying as he snatched them off us and stomped off in a huff! The flies were bothering us quite a bit now, getting in our food, drinks and faces. Our meals turned out to be not that nice too so all in all it was a disappointing end to an uncomfortable (but ultimately rewarding) day. It was topped off by the young lad coming back and scowling at us as he went by! We started our trudge back but were cajoled off the beaten path by the sight of an ice cream parlour which, although stupidly expensive, went down very well! We restarted our stroll home and popped into the Kid’s Plaza to buy some colouring books, crayons and pencils to give to any kids we saw on the street in the next few days. We thought this a much better option for them than cash. When we came out we were more than ready for our bed and the last couple of hundred yards to Rosy’s felt like miles! Once back home and in our room, closing the door on the noise in the bar downstairs (but having to listen to the hollering of the drunken Cambodian next door doing his level best to wake up the entire street!) we climbed between the fresh linen sheets and let today become yesterday!

27th February 2011

For the last two days we rested, letting Jen’s back heal as much as possible and giving Stew more time to rid himself of his cold and sore throat! There would be no more resting today, though, as we were saying goodbye to wonderful Siem Reap, and Rosy’s of course, and boarding a bus to the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh. We had already packed our things the night before and had booked a place to stay so were showered and downstairs waiting for our bus (due at 7:45am) by 7:15am. It was five minutes overdue and when it did show up it wasn’t what we were expecting. Instead of being a proper bus, as we were led to believe, it was a mini bus and was just picking us and other passengers up to take us all to the bus terminal! We stacked our bags in the back and climbed in and were driven around for a little while from hotel to hotel, hostel to hostel collecting people and luggage until there was no room left (in fact a lot of bags had to sit in the front with the driver!) and we set off for goodness knows where! The bus ‘terminal’ turned out to be a lay-by on a small roundabout. We poured out of the mini bus and unloaded the bags onto the pavement. Grabbing our own luggage we loaded them into the hold of the huge coach and climbed on board, managing to bag ourselves a great seat at the very front with loads of leg room (not that we need it!) and plenty of room for our small rucksacks. We even had somewhere to rest our legs. Result! Then Stew suddenly realised something was badly wrong - we had no snacks for the journey!! Quickly he jumped off the bus and ran across the road to a nearby shop and grabbed anything that looked half decent! With the bus now ready to depart, Stew quickly leapt on board and took his seat just in time. We were now perfectly set for the gruelling five hour plus journey and were just getting nicely settled in, when our coach swung into a big bus terminal and came to a whining halt before a loud voice boomed down the aisles, instructing us to change buses! We couldn’t believe it! We’d only been on it for five minutes! Everyone was wondering what was going on as we all trudged down the steps and waited for our bags to be removed from the hold before picking them up and dragging them to another waiting bus which, unsurprisingly to us, wasn’t as nice as the bus we’d just been on! Jen climbed aboard and found our seats while Stew waited in line to put the luggage in the hold. Once he’d passed the bags to the grumpy and miserable drivers he joined Jen upstairs in 4th class... It seemed to take an age before we finally got moving. Our new seat wasn’t a patch on the one we’d managed to procure on the first bus but it was all we were going to get so did our best to get as comfortable as possible but it was quite difficult as we now had very little leg room (even for us!) and what there was had been taken up by our rucksacks (we didn’t want to risk them getting damaged in the hold as they had electrical items in them). iPods out we plugged ourselves out of reality for a while while watching farms, small villages and green countryside flash past. In what seemed like no time at all, the bus was slowing and pulling over to the side of the road. Our immediate thought was that we were going to have to change buses again and were ready to start voicing our displeasure, but it turned out that the rickety old thing had sprung a water leak somewhere and was overheating! The driver and his cohort were filling it up again. This became a regular occurrence on the trip and every half hour or so we would pull over to the roadside. Where they were getting all the water from is anyone’s guess! Around the halfway mark we pulled in again, but this time it was into a roadside restaurant for lunch and a comfort break. It was a really grubby place and the last thing we wanted to do was eat there (in fact it looked so dirty that eating there probably would have been the last thing we’d have done!!). Just using the disgusting toilets was bad enough! Different nations’ ideas of cleanliness are wildly diverse! We were there for about half an hour before we were called onto the bus and back en-route to Phnom Penh, the place most famous for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and home to one of the infamous Killing Fields.
Another three or four water-filling stops later and our six hour trek ended in another bus station where hordes of tuk tuk drivers waited like circling seagulls over a newly spotted shoal of mackerel! The second the doors had opened and the first passengers had disembarked it was like open season and the drivers mingled with the passengers, each trying to land themselves the big prize – a hotel recommendation and the ride there. Thankfully we had already done our homework and booked a room at the Aqua Boutique Guest House so only needed a ride. Stew retrieved our bags from the pile being dumped onto the dusty ground and immediately had a driver latch onto him. Giving him the address of the guest house, we walked over to his waiting, tiny vehicle, balanced our backpacks precariously on the plate by our feet (holding on to their handles for dear life!) while at the same time clutching both rucksacks on our laps and sitting half facing each other so that we could fit in the chair, and we were soon trundling down the road and into the town. Ten or fifteen minutes later we were manoeuvring our bags off the little chariot and were being questioned by our driver about what we were doing and where we were going tomorrow. That was way too far in the future for our addled brains so we told him we really didn’t know and probably wouldn’t need anyone the next day. He wasn’t overly impressed by this and started the sob stories regarding not much work or job opportunities and he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t need the money etc. The truth was we really didn’t know what we were going to do the next few days and said if we saw him we’d use him. He stalked off muttering under his breath while we walked into our new home for the next few days. The restaurant where breakfast would be served was downstairs and we walked through it to go up to the first floor and into the reception area. First impressions were quite good and we were told we’d been given the ‘big’ room as it was the only one left. When we climbed the polished wooden stairs and opened the door, we were quite disappointed – there was nothing big about it – it was slightly bigger than the usual size of a hotel double bedroom but nothing outstanding. It was only when we walked out the door again and turned left that we realised it was indeed a big room – complete with a kitchenette, lounge and a balcony! The lounge had a three seater sofa in it – and a huge electronic massage chair! It was very nicely decorated in wood panels and wooden flooring, the walls painted a bright white. Now we really were quite impressed! It wasn’t a terrific view from the balcony but we didn’t care that much! We were tired, hungry and thirsty and the first thing we did was play with the massage chair! It was great and made us even more tired so we had a short snooze on our bed before hunger overcame the pair of us. Looking in the cupboards and drawers to see what sort of utensils we had, we came across a leaflet ad for a local Pizza delivery and that was it! Jen went down to reception, and our receptionist kindly phoned the pizza parlour for us. Our huge, hot Pizza was delivered within half an hour! Delicious it was too! By now it was getting late and to give us an insight into what went on in Phnom Penh and across Cambodia in the seventies with the Khmer Rouge we sat in bed and watched the movie The Killing Fields. It is a brilliantly acted but ultimately disturbing account of what life must have been like for the poor, innocent people that were massacred by the despicable Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge animals, and at the end we were both shaking our heads in utter disbelief! How on earth could those atrocities have gone on for so long, unchecked, and how could the rest of the world have looked the other way for so long?! We were astonished. And, by now, very tired too and with those awful images and thoughts in our heads we closed our eyes to another day.

28th February 2011

Up after a decent night’s sleep and downstairs eating our breakfast of, you guessed it, eggs at 9:30am. After watching the killing fields last night we elected to go and see them for ourselves so, once sated and fully equipped for the day, we walked outside into yet another glorious sun-soaked day, found a waiting tuk tuk driver and bartered a price with him for the whole day as we had planned to see Choeung Ek (the killing fields), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and finally, time permitting, the Royal Palace. We settled on 15USD for the day, until 6pm, and set off towards the infamous Choeung Ek. A little internet research we’d done earlier had revealed that this is quite a depressing place but one that is important for future generations to learn from so that the same thing can never happen again. Sadly, though, it has happened (and is still happening) in different parts of the world. We drove through the city and were surprised at just how busy it was but the traffic thinned out along with the buildings the further away from the city centre we travelled. After around half an hour our driver pulled onto a dirt track that led to the genocide museum. Once our taxi had come to a halt and a later meeting time had been agreed with our driver we walked to the ticket booth, purchased our tickets and, not really knowing what to expect, headed for the huge building at the end of the path with more than a little trepidation. It was a shocking sight. A huge white stupa had been erected and peering out from behind glass cases were row upon row of human skulls. These skulls and other human remains had been carefully laid out upon 17 platforms stacked vertically on top of one another with the lower platform containing some of the victims’ bloodstained clothing and the subsequent levels above holding the human remains. We stood in utter disbelief at the sight, both of us finding it harrowing and upsetting.

The Buddhist stupa built as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge

The Buddhist stupa built as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge


Victims remains lay on 17 levels in the stupa

Victims remains lay on 17 levels in the stupa


A few of the many skulls displayed

A few of the many skulls displayed


Victims clothes

Victims clothes

After reading some factual information we walked silently to the sites of the mass graves themselves. At various locations there were information boards present explaining exactly what happened at that specific site and some of the buildings that were used to hold the poor, terrified ‘prisoners’ prior to their execution, and the weapons used to execute them, were razed soon after the area was liberated by the Vietnamese. We walked around several pits that had been roped off. One pit in particular took a long time to leave our thoughts. It contained the remains of 100 women and children. The women were mostly naked and the babies’ skulls were found crushed where they had been slammed against a nearby tree before being tossed into the pit. Some of the victims weren’t even dead when they were buried. We read that strong chemicals were thrown in the pits to kill anyone still alive, dissolving the bodies in the process to hide the smell of death.

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Two of the mass graves found at Choeung Ek

Two of the mass graves found at Choeung Ek


The terrible Killing tree

The terrible Killing tree


One of the signs in place of what used to be at that spot

One of the signs in place of what used to be at that spot

Feeling very sad and sombre by this point, we decided to go for a walk around the perimeter of the area where we found two children playing who stopped to say hello to us. We handed them some pencils we’d bought a few days previously and seeing their smiling faces made us feel a fraction better. Steeling ourselves for more sorrow we walked to the museum that told the full story of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime and the atrocities that they committed. Some of the exhibits included torture tools and execution weapons which included everyday items such as shovels and knives which were employed when it was decreed bullets were too expensive! In the next room was a display that focused on the trial of the man who ran the S21 prison, (where the prisoners were held and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek) Kaing Guek Eav (better known simply as Duch) who gave the orders for the killings. He was sentenced to 35 years in jail for ordering the extermination of 21,000 people during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) and the authorities were trying to instigate proceedings against a number of others. Our final visit was to a small cinema that told the story of how this terrible place was discovered. After the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979 by the Vietnamese and what Choeung Ek actually was used for came to light, the entire site was carefully excavated and what they found were the remains of more than 8000 human beings of all ages and genders. To this day human remains and victims clothing are still surfacing (we saw rags, bones and teeth in the ground), especially after heavy rainfall. As a sign of respect, these are being left where they lay. It is estimated that between 17,000 and 21,000 people were executed at Choeung Ek alone and there were something like 20,000 killing fields across the whole of Cambodia. The number of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge is estimated at an astonishing 2.5 million, which was a quarter of the entire population at the time! We had seen all we wanted to see and so, with dampened spirits we trudged to the exit and bought a bottle of water from the nearby shop before meeting up with our taxi driver and as if we hadn’t had enough horror and sorrow for one day headed off towards the Security Prison 21 (S21) prison, Tuol Sleng about 15km away. Just off a busy street Tuol Sleng used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat high school until it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a place of torture and imprisonment. We walked along the ground floor of the first building we came to and were instantly horrified at what we saw. These were the rooms in which the Vietnamese liberators found the last twelve prisoners of S21. In a last act of defiance, the Khmer Rouge soldiers stationed here had brutally murdered all 12 prisoners when they realised the Vietnamese army were almost upon them. Each room was fairly large and dingy with barred windows, the chequered floors covered with dirty mustard and white tiles with the grubby, stained walls the same shade of dirty yellow. In the centre of each room was an iron framed bed with no mattress. Each prisoner was shackled to their bed by their arms and legs and some of the shackles are still attached to the iron frames. Torture instruments lay on the floor or fixed to the walls. We could only imagine what went on here. These rooms where the last twelve were discovered each had a single, large, black and white photograph hanging from a wall showing how the prisoners were found. The pictures were extremely gruesome. We trudged up the stairs to the 2nd floor and found some much larger rooms that were used to house many prisoners, all crammed in with no space to move and who were all shackled to long iron bars fixed to the ground until their time for torture came. We stood on the balcony that looked over the grounds and from here we could quite easily see the graves of the final 12 prisoners. There were 11 men and one woman. In remembrance they are all buried in the grounds in identical, unmarked, white tombs just a few paces from the cells in which they were discovered. Unable to take in what we were seeing and reading, we walked to the second building, passing by a huge timber frame where the poor prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs and they were then hoisted by their tied hands until they ‘confessed’.

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The awful Tuol Sleng S21 prison

The awful Tuol Sleng S21 prison

In the second building there were large poster boards with black and white photographs and names of all the men, women and children that the Khmer Rouge deemed were enemies and were rounded up and imprisoned here before being tortured and shipped off by the truckload to the Killing Fields where their lives came to a violent end. Apparently the persons in charge of Tuol Sleng kept accurate records of prisoners going in and out and from these the authorities were able to find out how many people were tortured here and sent on to Choeung Ek. Some of the photos carried information on the prisoners’ backgrounds, some of which were either famous or luminaries of some kind or other. Mathematicians, musicians, professors, actors and the like – all were deemed, overnight, enemies of the Khmer Rouge. Even some of their own supporters and Khmer Rouge high officials ended up here when they were deemed to be no longer of any use to the ultra communist party. Each prisoner wore a number along with the same terrified expression. We stood and looked into the eyes of these poor people – row after row after row. When we came to the picture of a small baby boy, his innocent little face staring out at us, it was all we could take and our tears flowed. We had both seen as much of this as we could bear, even though there was still more to see. We quietly went outside to get some fresh air and sat on a bench for a while before making our way out of this awful place to meet our waiting tuk tuk driver.

The timber frame used to torture victims

The timber frame used to torture victims


Some of the many thousands of victims

Some of the many thousands of victims


The tombs of the last 12 prisoners

The tombs of the last 12 prisoners

The last stop of our long day was the Royal Palace and we were in dire need of some cheering up! Unfortunately, time was more than a little against us as it was after 4pm when we pulled up outside and the Palace grounds closed at 5pm! After paying our entrance fee we walked briskly to the gate and, walking into the Palace grounds proper, we were greeted with a sight for sad eyes! After the tour we had just endured, this place looked like a little piece of heaven! A small group of orange and red-robed monks were also touring the buildings, adding even more colour to the already sumptuous surroundings. The grounds and gardens were huge and the buildings were beautifully ornate, with their perfect pure whites, yellows, golds and oranges glinting brilliantly in the bright evening sunlight. We rushed from building to building, from room to room snapping away at the magnificent carvings, statues and the colourful Ramaketi frescoes on a wall that adorned a long corridor to one side of the gardens. The large white King Norodom’s stupa stood in the gardens and as we neared it we could see that it had been intricately carved with thousands of small Buddha images, flowers, elephants, dancers, animals and guardians and the entire edifice looked as though it was solid marble topped off with a golden spire. The detail was astonishing! From here we walked to a striking statue of King Norodom sitting astride a truly magnificent white marble stallion and the whole thing was housed in a stunning pavilion construction in white and gold with a lavishly opulent roof. Flowers of reds, pinks and purples splashed even more colour across the gardens while HRH Kantha Bopha’s stupa, constructed from what looked like white marble with elaborately carved flowers and Buddha images, not unlike the King Norodom’s stupa, stood tall a short walk away. The carvings covered the entire edifice from the very top of its domed roof to the very bottom of the balustrades shouldering a staircase of twenty or so marble steps. There were four staircases in all, each at right angles and each leading to a landing area, just below the roof, in a small, open square in which sat a brilliant, yellow gold container shaped like a huge lotus flower. We really wished we’d had more time to explore here but the ground staff were waiting to close up for the night so, after bagging the very last purchase from a stallholder who had already packed up (we badly needed some water!) we made our way to the back gate, stumbling across an impressive model of Angkor Wat in the process, and so took a few pictures before heading out to find our driver.

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The beautiful Royal Palace

The beautiful Royal Palace

The last of the day’s sun was soaking away and the streets were becoming busier as we headed toward our guest house. We both said that we’d like to come here again so agreed to return tomorrow and take a much more leisurely stroll around instead of the Usain Bolt version we’d had to make do with today! As a pleasant surprise we found that it was well within walking distance from our current home away from home and we were soon in our comfy, big room with kettle on and fighting over who got the first go on the huge massage chair in the corner! After letting the ‘enthusiastic’ chair weave it’s magic on our aching muscles (leaving a few bruises in the process!) and reviving ourselves with coffee we weighed up our options for dinner and elected to make the long walk to and along the riverfront area where all the bars and restaurants were located. After our heavy day, physically and emotionally, we fancied a drink and so stepped out into the balmy night air and set off down the road. People park their cars mainly on the pavements here and so, consequently, the roles are reversed - cars end up on sidewalks and people walk in the roads! That can get somewhat dangerous as some of the time you don’t hear the vehicles coming and their drivers don’t see you stepping out! After around half an hour we’d made it to the riverfront and it was obviously the place to be – it was heaving with an eclectic mix of revellers, tourists, locals, street vendors, tuk tuk and taxi drivers and many young children selling bracelets and the like. Couples lined the wall overlooking the mighty Mekong River as boats of all sizes cruised upon its brown waters. Searching for a decent looking waterhole we noticed a nice looking, popular bar on a street corner and headed straight for it, sitting down at a small table outside in two comfortable armchairs and ordering our much-needed drinks once a waitress had finished playing with her son, cracking eggs into a bowl, and sauntered over to our table. The drinks were delivered in no time and it was like drinking pure nectar that first drink! We sat and chatted about our day and were interrupted every now and then by a small child wanting us to buy a pendant or a book or a bracelet or something else. The kids’ ages ranged from maybe 6 to 12 years old. We looked at the food menu in the bar but couldn’t see anything on there that took our fancy and so paid for our drinks and went in search of good food. It came in the shape of an Indian Curry house a little way up the road. It smelt divine as we walked past it so we quickly turned around and went in. It was a long, narrow place, dimly lit but clean with a number of diners already seated and enjoying their meals. Ordering more alcohol, we chose our dishes and our very un-Indian waitress jotted them down and sped off towards the kitchen while we sat and looked around the place. It wasn’t very long before the kids started coming in with the books, necklaces etc and once again we smiled and declined until a little girl with huge, brown eyes and the most adorable, sad little face came up to us carrying her little tray of handmade bracelets and asked us to buy one from her. Stew couldn’t resist, asking her what the prices were and listening to that tiny voice that sounded like she’d been breathing helium for a week explain the financial details. We bought two bracelets from her and she accepted our money with thanks but no smile and turned on the spot and walked to another table before walking outside and into the darkness. That little face and that tiny voice stayed with us for a long while. Our meal was delicious and we left there well fed and watered, wearing our beaded bracelets and decided it was too big an ask for our weary legs and bodies to carry us all the way back so hopped into the back of a waiting tuk tuk, bargained a price, and let him carry us home to our comfortable bed where we closed our doors and eyes on a difficult, but ultimately rewarding day.

Posted by StewnJen 21:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

More temples and ruins...

Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm

sunny 33 °C

23rd February 2011

Ta Prohm, another ruin near Angkor Thom, was our destination today and we had seen many photographs of this place. It looked wonderful, with trees growing unabated through the walls and buildings of this marvellous looking temple. Stew again felt lousy this morning so we had a little lie in before dragging ourselves into the shower and heading downstairs. Jen woke up with a bad back too (a bit worrying for when she would need to carry her backpack in a couple of day’s time!). Right now, though, we were looking forward to our visit but first things first – a late breakfast! Another disgustingly delicious bacon and egg roll from Rosy’s kitchen angels to set us up perfectly for the day, and we sat outside munching away as three tuk tuk drivers stared at us from across the street, no doubt wondering where (and when!) we were going to go today and which one of them would be picking up the ride!! As it turned out two of them disappeared within minutes and left the same guy we’d had yesterday to take us to Ta Prohm. He was upon us the second we crossed the boundary from Rosy’s, which made us smile, and we told him where we would like to go. He suggested we visit another site on the way so we left it to him to take us there. It was yet another cloudless, sizzling sky as we set off back toward the ruins. After around fifteen minutes we had reached Srah Srang, a huge manmade lake built in the 10th century as a Royal bathing pool!

The landing stage at Srah Srang

The landing stage at Srah Srang

It is some pool, measuring 350 metres by 700 metres! It was modified in around 1200 by King Jayavarman VII who added the landing stage, a series of stone steps leading to the water’s edge, decorated with stone lions and a balustrade of seven-headed serpents and as we walked to these steps we were immediately pounced upon by a couple of young kids, a boy and a girl, pleading with us to visit their rickety, grass-roofed stalls after we had looked out over the ancient lake and, as if to bind us to a promise, a young girl slipped a bracelet over Jen’s hand before Jen could even object! The young lad pestered Stew with bracelets too but after Stew had smiled and said no thanks a couple of hundred times, he got the message! After we had descended the stone steps leading to the lake and taken a few snaps, we made good on our promise and visited their stalls back along the way to Ta Prohm. Their attitude to us westerners seems to be one of complete confidence that once we are in their stall or shop we will definitely purchase something, and this turns to utter disbelief when we don’t!! It really is both amusing and bemusing! We really didn’t see anything we wanted and said our thanks and goodbyes to all before walking to the entrance of the ‘taster temple’ before Ta Prohm itself; Banteay Kdei, a short trek down a dirt path. With the sound of the young girl’s plaintive cries of “I give you good price” fading behind us, we were serenaded down the dirt track by a small band of landmine victims all playing traditional Cambodian instruments. Seeing them with their appalling injuries (landmines and unexploded ordnance still claim victims even today!!) was very humbling and, although they were not begging but were selling CDs of their music, we opted to drop some money in their basket as the sound being made by them wasn’t exactly easy on the ears! (We have since found out that some of the CDs people have bought from bands like this are in fact blank...!). A stone arch greeted us as we neared the ruins and it carried the same serene, stone-carved face that adorns most of Angkor Thom.

The beautiful gateway to Banteay Kdei temple

The beautiful gateway to Banteay Kdei temple

A little further up the path was Banteay Kdei and if this was anything to go by, Ta Prohm was going to be very special indeed! A big stone doorway was flanked either side by two long corridors with window openings. Above the doorway danced rows of stone Apsaras (dancing nymphs) while either side of it stood Devatas (female guardians) carved in bas-relief in the stone blocks. There were halls and corridors inside the complex where trees grew unrestrained, green moss adorned the many stone slabs that lay on the floor, adding to its beauty and its decay. It was utterly wonderful, but in a terrible state of repair and has not been restored. Walking out of the rear of the temple we came across a large, shallow lake where three fishermen were up to their knees in the brown waters, hard at work. Two of them were casting a large, white net while the third chewed on a large cigar while wading through the waters, pounding them with a wooden, conical basket, trying to catch goodness knows what!

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The eerie, mystical and beautiful Banteay Kdei temple in Siem Reap

The eerie, mystical and beautiful Banteay Kdei temple in Siem Reap

A fisherman uses a wooden basket to catch ..... something!!

A fisherman uses a wooden basket to catch ..... something!!

We spent around an hour and a half walking and climbing around the temple before we felt the need to visit Ta Prohm itself. The band played on as we made our way back down the dirt path and to our waiting driver, who cheerfully took us the short distance to the temple where Angelina Jolie pouted her way around as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider! As we neared it, however, it became apparent that it is an immensely popular attraction as there were many tuk tuks parked up with drivers either resting or chatting to one another. Once again, the second we came to a halt we were surrounded by women and kids trying to sell us water, books, postcards, bracelets and the like. Becoming quite accustomed to this now we just smiled at them, politely said no thanks, and carried on walking to the entrance. They were clearly not allowed beyond a certain point as they called out to our retreating bodies but didn’t follow. We walked the dusty road, really looking forward to seeing this amazing place in all its glory, but were horrified when we turned the corner and saw a coach load of school kids on a field trip all lining up outside the entrance, together with a huge group of Japanese tourists! Once again catching an orange-robed monk we followed him for a few minutes, leaving the kids and tourists behind and walked around. Huge trees grew in, through and over walls and steps, their serpentine roots searching for a foothold in anything around, sometimes splaying across the flattened areas for many metres, down carved steps and across the stone strewn floor. Huge slabs of sandstone lay piled on top of one another, some marked with id numbers ready for restoration work to begin. That is one big jigsaw puzzle! Tree roots split massive slabs as they straddled huge walls and sat on top of crumbling halls, chambers and terraces adding to the amazing sight. Carved doorways led off down passages and corridors and into small chambers or out into courtyards, ornate stone steps led down onto dirt paths or up to stone landings. Some of the walls were shored up with timber as they buckled with age. It was a magical, eerie and mystical place and we finished our two hour visit with the popular photo that everyone has to take before leaving this incredibly beautiful temple!

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The magical Ta Prohm temple - just beautiful!

The magical Ta Prohm temple - just beautiful!

The sun was disappearing as evening neared and we walked back to our patient, cheerful driver with Jen attracting a persistent, whining young girl on the way who had absolutely no intention of giving in trying to sell Jen a bracelet. She must have said “One dollar” a hundred times and actually started running alongside the tuk tuk as our driver started pulling away! The cooling air revived us a little on the ride back and we rested our weary bodies while our chariot raced home. Back at Rosy’s we were both feeling the effects of the long day and our ailments so had a rest in our room. Deciding we couldn’t manage another walk to the market area, we took the easy option and ate downstairs at Rosy’s place before hitting the net for a little while and then crawling into our bed, closing our eyes and seeing walls and trees and hearing “one dollar” for the next few minutes...

Posted by StewnJen 15:24 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

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