A Travellerspoint blog

A Week and Cambodia & Stay on Ko Tao

Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Ko Tao

sunny 35 °C

Hello again!

It’s been nearly a month since my last post from Phu Quoc island, our final stop in Vietnam. After another nauseating boat trip and brief wait at the borderpost Prek Chak we arrived in Cambodia. Our week-long trip through the country started in Sihanoukville on the coast, after a few days we moved on to the capital Phnom Penh and ended in Siem Reap near the legendary Ankor Temples.
At the moment we're on Ko Tao island, a tropical paradise filled with happy tourists riding around on scooters in flip-flops spending every night at the Lotus Bar watching the fire dancers. We ended up partying, swimming, relaxing and we actually did a course and received an open water diving license!
In a few days we have to do a visa run to Burma as it turns out that if you enter Thailand over land you just get a 15-day visa and there is no such thing as a 15 day extension, so we have to cross a border before the 15th and then re-enter the country.
The options were Burma, Laos, and Malaysia. Though we really wanted to stop in Laos at first because of all the überpositive stories, we eventually decided not to spend the largest part of two weeks in a bus. So now we're going to do a one day run to Burma and then extend our visa one day before flying out. After the visa run the plan is to go to Ko Samui and attend the Full Moon Party which takes place on Ko Pha Ngan on the 19th. It feels good that our last few weeks together will be a bit more relaxed and we can actually stay in one place for more than one or two days!
But first, let me elaborate a bit on our week in Cambodia! We really loved it! The sand is reddish everywhere and there is a lot of forestry, little rivers and the people are very friendly. Sihanouk was a bit disappointing, relatively deserted and very dirty everywhere. In addition, after swimming at Phu Quoc the beach was also a bit of a letdown. However, I reckon we also didn't really try to find a nicer beach as we were so exhausted after another horrid boat and bus trip. After walking around a bit and relaxing we left for Phnom Penh after three days. In PP we took the tuk-tuk and did a day trip to the Killing Fields and to the Tuol Sleng Prison. Both stops were interesting and impressive, especially the ground around the monumental stupa where the clothes of the victims still lay scattered all over the property. It seemed so strange that they did not clean it up.
After another day in hot and stuffy PP we went on to Siem Reap where we spend one day in the town itself, scouring the market place and wandering through the residential areas. In Cambodia, at least in the three places we visited, you can find the jungle or the deserted village roads just behind the tourist streets. It’s a cliché but poverty and modernity lie so close together. Cambodia certainly appears much poorer and more disadvantaged than the quickly developing Vietnam. The first full day in Siem Riep we cycled to the temples and visited Ankor Wat, Ankor Thom and some of the surrounding temples. The day after we went with our own tuk-tuk driver for a day and he showed us some more remote temples, among which Ta Phrom (from the Lara Croft movies) which was stunning! Cycling was a nice way to see the temples, but I've never been so hot in my life. I was so pleased when we had a tuk-tuk at our disposal for our next visit. Just before we left for Bangkok we met up with Matthias and Jeroen, two guys (Groningers!) we met before in Hanoi and we had a drink and introduced them to our favourite Indian place in Siem Riep! We loved the food so much that one day we actually took a doggy bag and breakfasted with curry! Because we left early the next day we could not stay late but it was good to see some familiar faces again. It’s such a coincidence if you're able to meet up again when everybody has such different plans. Always nice to swap some stories!
After Siem Reap we spend two days in buzzing Bangkok. On the bus from Cambodia we met a French and a German guy and we shared a taxi to the hostel and had dinner later that night. The French guy, Stephàne, who went to Bangkok every year for his business, took us to a shopping mall and to a nice restaurant near the legendary Khaosan Rd. It's quite an experience! You can find everything a traveler could possibly want crammed into a crowded, noisy street with flashing lights and annoying salesmen. They even sold fake licenses, student cards, and diplomas (from Oxford for example!) and when Marije made a picture of it she was forced to delete it quickly! But contrary to popular belief the prices are pretty reasonable in Khaosan Rd if you know where to look and we got a pretty good deal for our combi-tickets from the city to Ko Tao. I guess if you go to Bangkok you just have to visit the place!
Next, we took the night bus to Ko Tao island where we have been for more than a week now. It’s a pretty small, cozy island but one with a lot of bars, restaurants, massage parlors and diving schools. We expected it to be far less touristy, but it is overflowing with young
Swedish people and at least half of the people have piercings or tattoos and drive their scooters without a shirt on haha!
But its good fun! We went to the Lotus Bar, the gathering place on the beach for two nights in a row and had a great time. We were soon convinced by all the positive stories to try a diving course. Apparently Ko Tao is the cheapest place in the world to do a diving course so everything is focused on it.. diving schools everywhere! After a test ‘drive’ in the pool we decided to sign up with Phoenix Divers and we are now the proud owners of a diving license up to 18m!
The first day we had class and practiced some skills in the pool and the next we went to open water, though still quite shallow water. In the pool I was able to equalize my ears quite easily but in the sea it was pretty hard and it really hurt! Since I was a bit slow in adjusting I had my two dives of that day together with one of the dive masters (George from Greece). After I while I learned to equalize and we slowly followed the group and did some exercises under water. Things like taking your mask of, taking your regulator out and finding it again, giving somebody else your extra regulator etc., basic stuff but still a bit exiting when you do it at sea!
The second dive of the day me and George kind of lost the group and ended up on the other side of the bay, so he had to pull out an orange-balloon thing to alert boats to our presence and afterwards we swam back to the boat, to the amusement of the other dive instructors who teased George for being unable to read his underwater compass! I quite enjoyed just having a private instructor, no other fins kicking you near the face and only one person to keep your eye on. It was a really strange sensation to be so deep under water! You go down with a huge rope and lower yourself while equalizing and letting the air out of your BCD (Buoyancy compensator). The rope is also handy to find your way back to the boat.
The next day we did two more dives which were nice but less spectacular than the day before, maybe because it was the first time. Some people we met yesterday saw turtles and even a whale shark (imagine that! 8 meters long) but we weren't that lucky unfortunately. On the final diving day there was a camera guy joining us and he filmed everything, so after we received our license we celebrated by buying the instructors a beer and watched the video… me and Marije struggling with the gear and doing very clumsy jumps into the water!
Next we went to dinner with some of them but that was more than a bit disappointing! They we incredibly negative about all our plans, be it OZ and NZ for me or Indonesia and Malaysia for Marije! They thought everything besides Ko Tao sucked and they were very rude! I was ready to leave but eventually we sat through dinner and one drink and then made our way to some nicer people. I guess some of these dive-people just live in their own little bubble (pun intended). They do three or more dives a day and drink all night only to get up again at six! It’s crazy how they manage!
For the last few days we have been just recuperating from the exhaustion of the diving. Yesterday we paid another visit to the Lotus Bar which ended in a pretty bad hangover that lasted all day today! Tomorrow is our last day on Ko Tao and we're probably going on a snorkeling trip before doing the visa run to Burma... and then moving on to Ko Samui!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 07:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged boat diving beach bus bangkok wat bar reap ko siem sihanoukville tao ankor phnom penh Comments (0)

Impressions of South Vietnam

Dalat, Saigon, and Phu Quoc Island

sunny 30 °C

Hi there!

It’s been ten days since I wrote last, high time for a new update! In the meantime me and M.
have been in Dalat, Saigon, and Ha Tien. At the moment we are in Duong Dong, the biggest
settlement on Phu Quoc Island, 574 square kilometers of paradise under the Cambodian coast. Phu Quoc is a gorgeous! The beaches are wonderful, definitely among the most beautiful I’ve seen, the locals are much friendlier and we are staying in a amiable, clean hotel. We finally feel as if we're on a holiday, instead of on an undertaking!
Our first day on Phu Quoc we spend on the beach and yesterday we rented a automatic scooter and drove to near An Thoi in the South. M. rode on the way there through the countryside and I rode the way back along the coast, magnificent! At first I was a bit frightened to try but driving yourself is so exiting and you see and notice so much more than when you're in a bus! It was a tiring and dusty ride though, but something we won't hesitate to do again later on. The secluded beach we went to was also much more beautiful and less touristy than the one near the town... genuinely white sand and pale blue water and palm trees as far as the eye can see.. just of a postcard! Hope I can upload some pictures soon!
Today we did something else we had never done before, we went snorkelling! Another great experience! This morning we left at 8:30 at the hotel and stopped at a pearl farm (funny to
see how a pearl suddenly pops out of a shell!) before we went on a motorboat where Marije did some fishing (she actually caught three!) and we visited two different snorkelling spots. I thought it would be a bit scary at first... with the fish so close to you and the pointy corals... childhood fears of deep water I never quite got over. But it was marvelous! The fish were brightly colourful and something I can describe no differently than 'wuppies' (Dutch soccer mascots made up of a tiny fluffy balls with eyes, feet, and antenna) were growing on some of the rocks, very interesting! However, parts of the coral looked dead and me and M. tried to avoid touching anything. Fortunately this wonderful island has not been discovered by
mass tourism yet and we're grateful to see it for what it is before this inevitable wave that will turn it into the next Phuket. Tomorrow we plan on spending one more lazy day on the beach before heading back to Ha Tien on Sunday where we will take the bus to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Our third country already!
But I'm skipping some days! As I said before me and M. took the bus to Dalat after Nha Trang and spend a day and a half there. Lovely town in the mountains with a big market and nice scenery. We stayed in an overpriced, but nice hotel and spend the day haggling (mostly unsuccessfully) at the market, saw the local landmark the Crazy House (an unfinished Gaudi-like castle designed by Hang Nga, daughter of an ex-president) and went to a nice vegetarian restaurant. The next day we took the eight-hour bus trip to Saigon where we arrived in unbearably hot weather at dirty and chaotic Mien Dong bus station. We wanted to leave immediately, it was too hot to breath! Fortunately the atmosphere in the rest of the town was better and the backpackers’ area was actually quite cozy with lots of nice shops, bars and restaurants. The hostel was nice, quiet AND air-conditioned (!). We met a lot of friendly people in our dorm with whom we had dinner and joined to the street bar close by. The first full day we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an intricate tunnel network operated by the Vietcong. This was in my opinion a bit disappointing, the guide was pretty rude and annoying and besides the tunnels there was not a lot to see. I expected there to be something museum like... instead there was a shooting range which quite a lot of people found amusing! It felt a bit crude to me to start firing rifles for fun where so many people lost their lives... but then again the Vietnamese and the American tourists didn't seem to mind. In Saigon there is also a popular bar named Apocalypse Now, distasteful or trivial, I'm not sure?
We quitted the group soon and walked over the ground with two Finnish guys. Marije went into each tunnel with them... I had experienced quite enough after one short bit... humid, dusty and very tiny… I felt a little claustrophobic and decided seen one seen them all.
The next day we went on a day trip to the Mekong Delta. We visited a coconut-candy workshop, went on a rowing boat through the bamboo, cycled for half an hour over an island named after a fantasy beast and tasted some coconut milk and rice-wine. The experience was
quite nice but not very unique... it all felt a bit rushed! You saw everything quickly but the emphasis was on spending money in the handicapped workshop, restaurant or in the shops. We sailed over the Mekong, a broad dirty brown river, to a few islands and went back early in the afternoon, glad we didn't book a three day trip. After getting up early for these trips and having travelled to three different places in a week we were really looking forward to some relax time on Phu Quoc. In Ha Tien, a sleepy town near Cambodia, we spend one night in a horrible hotel (dirty, ants everywhere, broken toilet, bad service... you name it) and it turned out the bustickets we requested for Cambodia couldn't be delivered to the hotel after all… bit annoying then, but everythings sorted now. All we need is a visa when we get back to Ha Tien the day after tomorrow and then we'll be all set! So, next time you hear from me we will be in Cambodia already! Hope I will feel a bit better then. I got really sick on the boat to Phu Quoc and today again on the snorkeling trip. I have a bit of a dizzyness/balance/nausea problem sometimes because of the Lariam anti-malaria pills I'm taking for our two week stay in Cambodia. I guess I have to keep taking them for the next two weeks, but I will probably change to the day pills in Bangkok as I won't go near a boat again feeling like this unless its inescapable! More next time!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 03:41 Archived in Vietnam Tagged sea tunnels beach saigon mekong snorkling scooters cu chi dalat delta phu quoc Comments (0)

Motorbikes, New Years and a Hospital Visit

Hoi An and Nha Trang

sunny 23 °C

Hello again!

Me and M. just spend our first whole day at the beach! We arrived in Nha Trang two days ago and it’s a sunny 25 degrees here, definitely the best weather we've had so far! Nha Trang is a bit like Salou or Rimini, lots of little touristy shops and restaurants and bars with elderly Western men checking out the local girls (come to think of it, that’s probably not typical for Southern European party places). The beach is nice, relatively clean and it streches along the whole town. Unfortunately I couldn't go swimming today as I burned my leg when getting off a motorbike a few days ago and the wound hasn't healed yet. M. did go swimming and said the water's really warm!

Before we arrived here we spend a few great days in Hoi An! We really loved it there… lots of little tailorshops, art galleries, and restaurants. At night the whole town is illuminated with coloured lanterns and lanterns and because it was almost New Years there were illuminated floating animals on the river and decorations in the shops. The atmosphere was much more friendly and laid back than in Hanoi, but very touristy! We stayed in a relatively central hotel, with quite nice rooms for just five USD a night! We had met a nice Swiss girl (Sabine) in the bus and met some other people we had seen before in Ha Long so we had a drink together. You keep on meeting the same people over and over again as everyone's pretty much doing
the same route, part of the fun!
On our second day, after walking around town a bit, we met two English guys, Matt and Rob, whom we briefly encountered in Hanoi. That night we went for a drink and visited some of the local pubs. They were pretty empty but we had a good time anyway. The next day they had invited us to join them on their motorbikes, so we jumped on and went to the beach together and did some speeding. It was great fun, very exiting! It might be the best way to see Vietnam, but I guess it wouldn't work for me and Marije with our lack of technical knowledge and also the physical exertion of driving sometimes eight hours a day. We might rent some bikes for a day in Cambodia though, because it was fabulous! We even tried for a bit ourselves, pretty scary and quite difficult in the beginning actually!
That day, the third of February, it was also Vietnamese New Years so we had a shower (I swam for the first time) and then went to dinner and waited for the party to start. There were some lovely fireworks at twelve and many tourists and Vietnamese walking around town. But around one o'clock everything had pretty much quieted down and people were heading home already! Maybe because they celebrate TET for two weeks and not just one night and day as we do with our New Years.
The following day we were exhausted and I had to go to hospital to have the burn on my leg treated. I was a bit scared to go to a hospital here but M. was with me and it wasn't serious of course, but still! The doctor's English was as poor as can be expected but in the end he could pretty much explain what he thought I needed. I had four injections (two tests apparently)
and had to take two types of antibiotics (four pills) for five days. Later that day I mailed my Mum and she asked her friend who's a doctor and apparently everything was a bit over the top just for a burn and they just wanted to make some money. Doesn't matter too much, I'll get the money back from the insurance of course. Another interesting detail I shouldn't forget to mention… when M. asked the doctor when I could drink alcohol again he invited us for a drink at his place, pretty creepy!
After a good night's sleep we left for Nha Trang the next day at six in the afternoon… and we arrived at quarter to five in the morning! I had been feeling sick all the time because of the antibiotics and couldn't sleep and on top of that it turned out all hotels and hostels we're fully booked! We walked around for four hours before we found a hotel. M. booked one online, which turned out to have a problem with the water so we were brough to another one with taxi. Then M. haggled the price from twenty-three to seventeen euro's a night for the both of us, as there was no breakfast included in this substitute hotel. Chapeau after that awful night!
The rest of the day and night we slept and the next day we moved to the youth hostel we are staying now. Yesterday we went for a drink with a couple of people and today we had dinner with another Dutch girl. We've been travelling for six weeks already, OMG its going by so fast, I can hardly believe it!
Tomorrow we will spend one more day relaxing at the beach here and then take a bus to Dalat! After Dalat we will probably go directly to Saigon and possibly to the Mekong Delta or Phu Quoc Island after that.

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 06:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beach new party years motorbikes hoi an nha trang Comments (0)

Grouptrip to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi & Ha Long

semi-overcast 14 °C

Hey there!

Yesterday me and M. came back to Hanoi by bus from Ha Long. The trip to Ha Long, our first real touristy group trip ever was great fun but also really exhausting! We had to get up at seven each day and be really sporty at eight.You can imagine me and M. struggling
with early morning climbing and kayaking!
However, we did met some affable people, an Australian couple from Melbourne (Nicky and
Felix), a hilarious Chinese Indonesian (Limhendro) and two engaging Swiss guys (Patrick and Adrian). On our first boat there were just elderly people, but fortunately the groups were fluctuating constantly so you met people from different companies and hotels.
Marije, me and Hendro formed one group and we were constantly accompanied by 'Strong,' our tour guide who spoke a few memorised English sentences. He would just give very general comments ('The cave is very big', 'You have to be careful with passport') or start summing up the programme again when you asked him something. It turned out we paid twenty USD extra for him and because we booked the Ha Long trip in our 'corrupt' hostel. That said, it was definitely worth it, even though there was no sun, the views were stunning!
And it’s quite an experience to sleep on a ship there in between the sloping hills and waking up with a sunrise on the water. The food was great and so was the hotel for the second night, the night on the boat was pretty bad because it was way too cold and there was just one dirty blanket (without sheet) for everyone. But I guess that's part of the Vietnam tourist experience, just like the presence of our bodyguard Strong! The first day we visited a cave, went to Cat Ba island, climbed a peak, and went kayaking... only the promised Karaoke never happened! Something I at least was secretly looking forward to!
Tomorrow we're hopefully taking a bus to Hoi An to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year there. I say hopefully because Marije was pretty sick last night, I'm fine so it’s probably some meat she ate... you never know. We heard Hoi An would be a good place to be stuck for a few days. We booked the open bus ticket in town this time, twenty USD cheaper than in the hostel! We might seem a bit obsessed with the prices, but trust me, most backpacker are. After all, we're planning to stay away for six months at least!
Next update will be from Hoi An!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 02:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains water cat bay mist long climbing hanoi ha ba grouptrip Comments (0)

Biting the Dust in Horrible Hanoi!

From Nanning to Hanoi

overcast 12 °C

Hello everyone!

I just got some amazing news! I worked for a couple of days on my Master Thesis on
Faulkner and now I just received an email from my Professor stating she is boosting
my grade from six to seven! That will look much better on my grade list! I'm really
happy I took the time to make some last amendments and it actually helped to stare
at a screen in several noisy, cold common rooms in hostels! Now I can finally stop
worrying about that as I just made a definitive request for my master's degree.
Today is our third day in Hanoi and we kind of hate it here! The pollution is terrible,
you have to walk around with a scarf around your head most of the time! And the
traffic is a total disaster, and not in a fun way! We thought China was busy and
unorganised, but it’s well-structured and clean in comparison with Hanoi. Of course this is just one city in Vietnam, but we hope fervently it will be better when we move
down South! Yesterday we walked for an hour through the chaos to find a bus station
so we could buy a ticket to Cat Ba (near Ha Long) and get an open-bus-ticket to
Hue or Hoi An, but of course you could only buy a ticket for the day itself (the Lonely
Planet needs an update here!). So, that kind of sucked and now we will have to
go for one of the more expensive deals in the hostel or at a travel agency. We're
really fed up with the exhausting experience of finding your way around Hanoi (the pavement
is filled with holes, there is junk everywhere.. people sitting drinking thee, building iron
ladders, displaying goods and food.. so you often have to walk on the street where
the cars and scooters flash by you and use their horns in a perfect cacophony of chaos!)
That’s why we’ve decided to buy our tickets in the hostel and of course it will be terribly
overpriced, but at least there will be no more hassle for a couple of days. We want
to go to Ha Long Bay for two days and after that travel to the middle of the country, to Hue or
Hoi An for Vietnamese New Year. We need to be sure we have a place to stay then and we’re somewhere we want to be as it’s likely we get stuck for a while.

That's the plan so far! And we were really excited to finally see some sunny beaches,
but for the next week the weather is rainy in the whole of Vietnam! How is it possible?
We went here a bit quicker in order to get out of the cold, only to find the rain (fortunately
not here in Hanoi yet). Maybe the forecast will be better for the week after?! And
Ha Long Bay will probably still be beautiful in the mist! Yesterday we met Matthias en Jeroen, two Dutch guys from Groningen (!) and they had a really good time in Ha Long
and said it was definitely worth it to go on a two day organised trip, so we're going to give it a try! At least it will be easy as you don't have to worry about food and transportation!
Besides walking around in the overcrowded narrow streets, we just managed to visit one temple! It was called The Temple of Literature, and though quite cute with Turtle statues and a nice pagoda, it was much less impressive than the Jinci Temple we saw in Hangzhou for example. We also had a walk around the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was nice, but all in all Hanoi is a bit disappointing.
So, for today we plan on doing nothing and relaxing for a day in the hostel! The hostel is quite nice (clean rooms, a really big movie room with comfy couches en free internet) and it’s quite easy to meet other nice backpackers, something we did miss out on so far! Maybe it was just coincidence or we just went to the wrong hostels, but we met so few backpackers in China! I reckon sharing travel experiences and meeting new people are after all the best part of travelling! In Nanning we did meet some nice people; like Lau, a really outgoing, overfriendly Brazilian soccer player who played some romantic Portuguese songs for us on his guitar. But if you can't really communicate with someone it gets dull soon. There was also a friendly English/French teacher working in Shanghai, so with him (Romain) and the Brazilian (Leonardo) we played some domino's (which Lau took very seriously) and talked about travel plans. In addition, Nanning was also useful as we were able to finally wash our clothes after three weeks (!) and I managed to make a pretty good book swap deal!
I will hopefully be able to update again in a couple of days after the Ha Long trip!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 23:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temple busy hanoi scooters cloudy nanning pollution Comments (0)

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