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The Ho Chi Minh trail

Step back and chill

The Laos leg of our tour started in Hanoi. To get to Laos we had 2 very long bus journeys ahead of us. The first one was leaving the next morning down to Vinh - still in Vietnam. But first we had to meet the new guys joining us on the Intrepid tour. After our meeting a bunch of us decided to go find beer junction and then have dinner. Beer junction is an intersection in the old quarter of Hanoi. Each corner has a bar (if you can call it that), with stools on the pavements that spill out onto the street. Now sitting on a stool in the road, drinking a nice cold, cheap draught, praying that you dont get hit by a scooter or a taxi, might not sound like fun but it was grand. Beer junction is the one place in Vietnam where you will see locals and tourists sitting side by side laughing and having a good time at the same place. It has an amazing atmosphere and the beers are around 50c US, with amazing snacks to add to the great evening vibe.
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After a few drinks we all went in search of food. We walked up and down a few streets until we found a busy street stall filled with locals and tourists alike. The place looked septic with rubbish all over the floor, bones and leftovers in amongst the litter under the low tables. But that is the norm in Vietnam. Most places we went to on the street was the same with people just chucking the scraps and serviettes under the tables. They cleared a table for us by literally wiping everything onto the floor adding to the pile of trash on the pavement. Now as anyone knows after a few drinks you really need to use the toilet, so my 2 swiss friends and I asked where the toilet was. The one waiter showed us an alley down the street. It was about 60cm wide and we followed it with trepidation. Once we got to the end, about 5 meters, it was pitch black and the rotting corpse type smell eminating from the darkness was making us wretch. Nils had a torch attached to his belt and Ronny took it and went into this 'cubicle' first. Once the torch was on we could see the sewage piled up and the toilet overflowing. The floor was covered by a few centimeters of excrement and urine and could be the single most unpleasant moment of my trip - or life for that matter. As the light revealed more of our situation Ronny discovered that there was a fresh coil steaming on top of the already overflowing pile of poo. Don't ask me how the person managed to squat there without getting it all over their clothes. Anyway we hurriedly did our business and went to eat back at the street stall, laughing at everyone else gagging when we recounted our most recent experience of SE Asia. My meal was the best fried rice I have had on my entire trip. It was a great evening and everyone had lots of fun.

The next day we spent on a bus bound for Vinh playing dodgems with traffic and potholes down the crappy roads of Vietnam. 8 hours of bus later we arrived in Vinh-the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. Vinh is a port town with nothing to offer these weary travellers. We ate dinner at a place that looked like a sushi bar with a conveyor belt that transported plates of raw fresh food tantalisingly close to our noses. In front of us at our stations was a hole for a soup pot. We could control the temp of our soup(stock) with a little controller in front of us. This is such a great idea. Its basically a hotpot and the food that comes past is placed into your pot and you cook it till you are happy that its done. Boy did I eat - clams, prawns, crab, pork, veg, noodles, steak. . . . . I think the place was called Kiwi-Kiwi. a great concept and for 159 000 Dong for all you can eat, a real steal!

The following morning saw us up early again for another day of bussing. The first 3 hours was spent driving up winding mountain passes to get to the Laos border. Here we left the safety of our bus, crossed the border and climbed onto a new bus. We continued on our journey through the mountains with a long drive to look forward to. The first noticeable difference between the 2 countries are the roads. Laos roads are in better condition. Its cleaner, quieter and full of toyota 4x4s. We stopped for a few scenic photos and some lunch and a drink. Beer Laos is a great beer, in fact most beers in SE Asia have been great. After lunch we drove and drove and drove. We eventually arrived at our Hotel in Vientiane some 13 hours after we had started the day - roughly 333km away. Crap that's slow going.

Vientiane, capital city of Laos and home to roughly 210 000 people is a stunning city. It is clean, quiet and is located on the banks of the mighty Mekong river. We had a guided tour of the capital in the morning. We took in a temple and then walked up a road resembling the Champs Elysee in Paris. This even has its own version of the Arc de Triomf too. We climbed the steps to the top of it for the amazing 360 views across the city. After climbing down the 300 steps to get down, we headed off to COPE Centre. The COPE Centre was set up to help people who have lost limbs or have been injured by bombs that did not explode during the american war. It also helps children with clubfoot and people needing orthotics. Whilst at COPE we were all shocked to find out that Laos is the most bombed place ever, YES ever. Around 30% of these cluster bombs never exploded and people regularly get injured when one of theseunexplodedbombs does explode. The US ran, on average, a bomb run evry 8 minutes for 9 years. That works out to almost 600 000 bombing sorties in Loas. This was because Laos was letting Viet Cong use the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies to troops on the front lines.The USA dropped more bombs on Laos than were used in the entire second world war. That is shocking. Still today their bombs are killing innocent people. I have learned so much about the USA that most people dont know and it is sad to know that most people on earth will never find out the truth. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and the evening saw us having sundowners whilst admiring the sun disolving over the far bank of the magnificent Mekong.
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The next day we were heading to a place called Vang Vieng. Any person that has heard of this place will know it for its reputation as a hedonists paradise, where you could get high on drugs and as drunk as a skunk while having a whale of a time floating down the river in an old tractor tube. The Laos government has shut down all the pubs along the 4 km tube route because too many tourists were losing their lives on the many slides and zip wires into the river. It was a painless 4 hour bus ride(160km) from the capital. Vang Vieng is a tiny village set against a backdrop of a dramatic limestone mountain range. It is extremely picturesque and sits on the bend of the Song River.

The town is a tourist place between Luang Prabang and Vientianne so everything is geared towards people like us. Souvenir shops, restaurants and bars and then the normal bike hire and tour shops all dotted amongst the many hotels and guest houses. All the restaurants play reruns of Friends or Family Guy non-stop and the pace of life is slower then slow. I timed the one waitress with my beerlao and it took her around 40 seconds to drag my beer a full 30 meters. I challenge anyone to drag their feet like this lady and cover that distance in that time. It is almost impossible to crawl that slowly, but that lady made it look like life was in slow motion. our favorite pub/restaurant was called Other Side and was a great place to watch time elude you as you lazed about the benches overlooking the river.

After our first night we hired bicycles and headed to Tham Phu Kham. This cave is about 7km from town. First up we payed 4000kip to cross the bamboo bridge with a bike, then we made our way with a basic map towards the caves. This was a very scenic ride as we passed rice paddies, streams and villages. We passed cowboys tending their buffalo, kids playing in the roads, farmers harvesting crops of rice all in the shodow of this spectacular mountain range. Once we got to the cave we were greeted by a chrystal clear stream that is turqoise blue and very deep. The first thing I noticed were the branches hanging over the stream, so I promptly climbed to the 5m(roughly) and jumped into the refreshing cool waters. We all had a dip here to cool off before tackling the 200m or so almost vertical climb to the cave. Once at the top we were rewarded with a large dark cave with a reclining buddha inside. Like many caves in SE Asia it ad been turned into a place of worship. The descent down the side of the mountain was much more difficult, especially with wet flip flops. We all had another long swim before heading back to town. The night on the town was spent at Other Side again, but heck it was so nice to sit there and chill.
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The next day was tubing day. We payed our cash, grabbed a tube and hopped into a tuk-tuk(jumbo) and enjoyed the ride 4 kms upstream where the guy dropped us off and left us to it. T-shirts stuffed into the dry bag we set off bobbing down the river like giant corks. The river was stronger then it looked. Relaxing on the tubes, we floated past incredible scenery and the remnants of bars, with slides and zip lines that peppered the banks of this river. Apparently the barstaff used to fish tubers out of the river and ply them with free booze. But that part of Vang Vieng doesn't exist anymore because of this. We had avery relaxing few hours on the water and ended off the morning with lunch at our local.After lunch I went to see the cock fighting, which I didnt find all that interesting, but it was one of those things I had to see once in my life. They do not fight to the death and there is a vet on hand to stitch up wounds if any cocks should get injured.
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That pretty much sums up our time on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We had an amazing time in an incredible sleepy town. Very memorable indeed, Vang Vieng you will never be forgotten, the 3 days of buses to get to you, your beauty, peacefulness and charm pulled all the right strings, thank you!

Posted by louslabbert 19:30 Archived in Laos Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains bridges buildings parties trees animals birds sky boats food rain street travel bus river roads vietnam rice laos vientiane wat monks forest sights time border ancient stalls hours vinh ho_chi_ming ho-chi-minh-trail Comments (0)

Cambodia

A whirlwind tour through the country....

13th September 2012- Goodbye Bangkok.......

A very long day for us as our overland journey began. The bus picked us up at 7am , Cambodia bound . We spent our first night in Siem Reap, where we arrived at 16:15.. Luckily the bus stopped every 2 hours for "happy house" - the term used on the tour for a toilet break!
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Siem Reap is a small town that attracts tourists from all around the globe as it is the gateway to the magnificent temples at Angkor and the reason for our stay here. As a group we all went for a dinner - traditional Khmer food - which was great. I had a chicken coconut curry and Ken had beef lok lak, a tasty Khmer dish full of flavour served with rice and a fried egg. Then we headed to "pub street" for a few cold cheap drinks (beers US$0.50) and to get to know our group. Not wanting to be hungover for the long day of temples the following day, we headed home on a tuk-tuk at around 11pm.
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The Temples of Angkor must be SE Asia's biggest draw card and are spread out over 40 square miles around Siem Reap, built between the 8th and 13th centuries. We started the day at the massive temple complex called Bayon, named after the Banyon tree. Built between 1181-1220 it has a vast amount of relief carvings (around 4000 linear feet) of battles and of the history and beliefs of the local population. There are mysterious carvings of faces carved into towers on the 3rd level. Then we moved on to Preah Kahn - another temple built by the same king. It was steaming hot and we were all feeling like we had been sitting in a sauna for hours, so we headed for some shade, drinks and lunch. After the well deserved break we took off to explore the temple Ken really wanted to see, Ta Prohm. It hasn't been restored and it is surrounded by a moat and has been left pretty much the way it was discovered in the late 1800s. The jungle has reclaimed the temple for itself. This temple was used to film the Tomb Raider film with Angelina Jolie. It was fascinating to see how much damage the trees have done to the huge sandstone buildings. All templed out we headed to our last temple for the day and most famous temple in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. This is the supreme masterpiece of Khmer architecture. It is an impressive pyramid temple built between 1113-1150. The moat surrounding it is 570 foot wide and around 4 miles long. Probably the best views and impressions of this place are the first, when you cross the moat on the causeway and enter through the gates. Its an incredible sight and one you see on nearly every photograph of Cambodia. A very tiring day for all and one we thoroughly enjoyed. This will stay with us until we kick the bucket.
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So after quiet night of quick food, a fish pedicure and reading we crashed early. The following morning we headed off by bus to Tonle Sap Lake. This is Asia's largest fresh water lake. In the wet season it expands from around 2600 km2 to a sea-like 12000 km2. When we arrived at the lake we were ushered onto a boat which took us to Chong Kneas, a floating village. This is not a typical tourist attraction, this is a real village that many Cambodians call home. Residents live in brightly coloured houseboats that bob up and down on the choppy water. Villagers can worship at the floating catholic church or mosque. The large community of Chong Kneas consists of a network of 8 villages that lie along the Tonle Sap water way. The village migrates with the rising and falling water levels. About 6,000 residents live there. Although it sounds charming, life on these waterway is hard. Inhabitants live mainly in wooden house boats, some of the more poor live in makeshift stilt houses on the shore.
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On our last night in Siem Reap we joined our tour guide for dinner at a local restaurant. As no-one spoke english, he ordered a variety of dishes to try, including sizzling spicy beef ( yum!), spicy fried frogs , baby duck eggs and a spicy eel dish. Ken tried a bit of everything, and really enjoyed the frog dísh and baby duck eggs. I wasn't quite so adventurous and stuck to the beef and the rice! I did try the baby duck eggs and although it wasn't too bad, I didn't have any more than one bite! Was a great night away from the usual tourist part of the town.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Siem Reap, but it was time to go. After a long 7 hour bus journey on a public bus we arrived at a place called Kompong Cham, on the banks of the Mekong River. Thanks to the belting rain, we didn't do much here except the previous blog catch up and go out for dinner. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise though which made up for it being the sleepy hollow of Cambodia - well to us, anyway!
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Another bus journey took us to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It was made the capital in the 1430s, when the capital was moved from Angkor in order to increase trade and put some distance from the kingdom of Siam (Thailand). We spent a very interesting afternoon at the killing fields and the S21 prison camp. It was gut wrenching to learn how these people were slaughtered during the Pol Pot regime. S21(Tuol Sleng genocide museum)was a high school which was converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge. It was designed for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing, after confessions from the detainees were received and documented. All of the photographic evidence aand torture cells we saw and the visit to the killing fields left us with very heavy hearts and absolute disgust and sadness about how humans could treat each other. Over 2 million people were killed during the Pol Pot Regime.
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We had another morning in Phnom Penh, which we spent shopping at the local markets and picking up a few essentials at a supermarket.

Our next stop was Chambok, a rural village where we spend the night at a homestay. Very basic houses are built on stilts. The sleeping area is upstairs - matresses on the floow with mosquito nets and the living area is underneath the house, with a seperate hut for cooking and an outbuilding for the long drop toilet. The water is a piped down the hill to the village from a 40 metre high waterfall. After meeting our host families and checking out the houses we walked up to a central canteen area. Women from the village take it in turns to cook for the visitors to the village. After dinner, which was lovely, we were treated to some entertainment by the local kids who performed a series of dances for us. The whole project is about sustainable living off the land. Villages used to hunt animals from the forest and and chop trees for a living , but now, thanks to eco-tourism they are protecting their land and replanting trees etc. After the dancing we headed back to our hosts where we all sat and enjoyed a few beers and homemade rice wine. With the help of a couple of interpreters we were able to ask our host families questions and vice versa. We learnt a lot about their way of life. An early start thje next morning, thanks to the roosters. Breakfast was served back at the canteen area, again cooked by the village ladies. After breakfast we went on a guided hike through the forest to the waterfall. It was around 6km walk up the mountain. After a dip in the water we headed back to the village. What an amazing experience the homestay was and an insight into a life so far removed to what we know.
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Next up on the worlwind tour of Cambodia was a seaside resport called Sihanoukville, about 3 hours drive from Chambok. What an experience! Hawkers patrol the beach and pretty much swarm you like flies to shit. They sell everything and anything from fresh fruit to cooked crabs, prawns and squid to sunglasses and weed! Even when you sit at one of the beach side bars or restaurants they hound you. I was offered hundreds of pedicures during our stay there. On the first night we went to one of the many restaurants which do bbqs every evening. We chose a lovely local restaurant. You choose any of the meat , fish or chicken and it is served with a potato of your choice plus a salad. I had squid and Ken had the pork steaks. Was really yummy! Washed down with US$0.50 beer of course. After dinner we enjoyed a couple of drinks at an awesome beach bar that sits on stilts above the sea. So so relaxing and such a treat to see and hear the waves crashing on the rocks. Our one full beach day in Sihanoukville was pretty much ruined to the rain, but we did manage to get a few hours lying on the beach and swimming in the sea - was so lovely. While splashing in the waves it was at that point that I was so excited about moving back to South Africa and hopefully being able to do this more often. The whole afternoon and evening was a total washout, thanks to the monsoon season. We treated ourselves to a full body massage at a place called "Seeing Hands" - they employ blind or sight impaired people as the masseurs. What a great and much needed massage. An early night for us after dinner with the group and the rain still bucketing down.

Last stop in cambodia was back at Phnom Penh for one more night. Not much was on the agenda. We walked around town, sampled some tasty street food at the "Yellow Market" and enjoyed a few happy hour beers, while the rain poured again. We decided to embrace the rain rather than wait for it to stop, and went in search of a restaurant we had past earlier in the day. Thanks to Ken's good sense of direction we enjoyed a delicious bowl of Vietnamese Pho for dinner, gearing us up for Vietnam. Sopping wet and tummies full , we had a relaxing last night in Cambodia.
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We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cambodia and we were looking forward to the next leg of our overland journey through SE Asia - Vietnam here we come.

Posted by louslabbert 14:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes waterfalls lakes beaches bridges buildings boats temples villages rain fishing fields bus city rice museum wat pol_pot sunsets_and killing_fields _sunrises pnom_penh Comments (0)

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