Current events: Landed in Beijing

It feels like forever since I’ve written anything. Really it’s only been about a week, but what a full one it’s been!

Yunnan was a whirlwind – three stops (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Zhongdian, also known as Shangrila, and Lijiang/Shuhe) in six days and all of them beautiful.

And now we’ve landed in Beijing.

We’ve gotten ourselves a big, bright studio apartment in the art district (using Air BnB again) and it feels good to know we’ll be staying in one place for more than two nights! Although as of today we only have two more weeks in China – and a LOT we want to see and do before we leave. So I’ll enjoy the bit of down time while I can. And do what I can about the blog backlog. 🙂

Hanoi travel notes and last thoughts on Vietnam

Just a couple of recommendations on Hanoi before I wrap up.

We stayed at the Hanoi Serenity Hotel. The rooms were good enough, the staff was very friendly and happy to help out in any way they could. The building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’ll get some extra exercise if you’re staying on one of the higher floors. What was great about the place was the location, with the old quarter opening up on the hotel’s doorstep.

We didn’t find any place amazing to eat in Hanoi although we tried recommendations from both Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.

One epicurean pleasure was eating at Mediterraneo. It’s an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The food is quite decent and I really liked the wine (although I am not too hard to please on this front).

What made it wonderful for me though was sitting on the restaurant’s balcony as the sun began to set. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is just at the end of the street, and if you go for an earlier dinner, you’ll be there during the mass. Sitting in the warm, golden, evening air, sipping red wine and listening to the deep peal of the church’s bells (one of my favorite sounds in the world), I could almost imagine I was back in Europe. It was amazing to watch the great number of people who were attending mass; so many that they spilled out into the courtyard in front of the church’s entrance.

I also managed to find another up-scale hotel not too far from the Serenity where I could pay to use their simple gym. Working out so helps my head space – I’m intent on doing this as often as possible.

Grains of salt

Looking back over our time in (and my posts on) Vietnam, I recognize that this was clearly the most challenging country for us (on our travels so far at least!). I’ve mentioned it before but I want to make sure I’m clear about it once more for anyone who might be considering traveling to Vietnam.

I believe that travel is a very subjective, luck (or fate?) based thing. Like life, it’s a mystery but fundamentally I do believe that we attract the experiences we need to have, even if we can’t understand or see clearly why we may need them at the time of their occurrence.

So I don’t (yet?) know why we had hard luck and a tougher time in Vietnam, but I do know that just because that was our experience of the place doesn’t mean that it should be written off. We’ve run into people who were turned off by India, the country that took our hearts by such storm that we are still, nearly a year later, entirely under her spell.

So if you’re feeling drawn to Vietnam, I totally encourage you to go check it out and see what kind of experience YOU have there. I’m sure it will be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about it. 🙂


Here’s the run down of where we went:

July 22 Saigon Lac Vien Hotel
July 31 Dalat Hotel Chau Au – Europa
August 2 Hoi An Hai Au Hotel
August 5 Hue Hue Holiday Hotel and Huenino
August 10 Cu Nam Phong Nha Farm Stay
August 14 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
August 18 Halong Bay A Class Cruise
Aug 19 – 22 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel

Notes on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most iconic scenes. Before reading up on it, I was familiar with images of beautiful classic “junk” ships set against the dramatic waterscape, but I hadn’t realized this was Vietnam. The lovely Louise and Patrick highly recommended visiting – noting that even though you basically have no choice but to see it as part of a tourist-package, the gorgeous nature is well worth the risks associated with such tours.

(Risks like: Are you really going to get what they are selling you? Will the weather cooperate? Will the people you’ll be stuck on the boat with nice or nasty? We’d read plenty of horror stories about dingy, rat-infested boats, no refunds when the weather turns bad, etc. The bottom line is, yes, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing, but make sure the person/business you’re buying the tickets from is trustworthy (we found some pretty dodgy websites and endorsements on-line!) and it is worth spending a bit more money to get on a decent boat – don’t go for something that is rock-bottom budget.)

We booked (through our hotel) an overnight trip with “A Class Cruise” and got reasonably good service/accommodations for a reasonable price. We had bad luck with the weather – it was cool and cloudy the first day and pouring cats and dogs the next – and good luck with the guests who were all friendly and good company. I’d rather have it that way than the other way around, so I was happy. 🙂

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View of our room from the door (small but fine)

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View of our room from the bed

We knew what we were getting into so we weren’t disappointed. The tour company picked us up in a mini-van; the drive to Halong Bay included a refreshment stop at a massive tourist store full of tacky sculpture and mass-produced paintings. Arriving at the Bay, we joined the hundreds of other tourists being herded like sheep to the slaughter by the tour group handlers. It honestly was exactly like queuing in line for a ride at Disneyland on a busy holiday.

The boat was perfectly nice; the food they served was decent and plentiful. The hours on the boat were sliced up into activities – make your own spring rolls, taste some (dull) Vietnamese wine, go visit a “floating village” (nothing compared to the amazing river-villages at Kampong Chhnang), now its time for swimming and/or relaxation before dinner is served, etc…

The nice thing was that even with this and the grey weather, Halong Bay still is very, very beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it. I wonder though if it was glad to see us – with so very many tour boats cruising through the bay with military efficiency (our boat picked up guests from the two-night tour on the way back and our room was ready to receive the next round of fresh meat before we even docked), one can’t help but wonder about (and feel a bit guilty about contributing to) the impact on the environment…

Panorama view of the bay as we (and all the other boats) dropped anchor for the night – click for a closer look

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We get taken for a boat ride around the karsts and village

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Floating snack shop rows from boat to boat selling over-priced beer, chips, etc. It must be a hard living – she was rowing around long after dark and I’m not sure how much she actually sold…

DSC 0432Beautiful scenery!

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One of the things I really loved was watching the eagles (or hawks? or other?) wheeling through the sky above the karsts. So gorgeous!

Expectations and endless green

At this point in the trip it was feeling like quite a challenge to get off of the well-beaten tourist path in Vietnam (more like the well-bulldozed, completely paved six-lane highway of tourism actually). Most destinations listed in Lonely Planet were so well established that the “experience” of them was pretty pre-packaged and ready-made by the tourism machine.

Many places we looked into that were not on the major hit list were described, by Lonely Planet and other sources we cross-referenced, in such a way that they came across as totally and completely unappealing. *

So when we stumbled across information about a “farm stay” that was too new to be in Lonely Planet but came with favorable reviews and wasn’t at a major tourist destination, we were keen to give it a go.

So, we’re not 21 anymore

The Phong Nha Farm Stay was in a small farming village in North-Central Vietnam called Cu Nam. The closest major transportation stop is the beach town of Dong Hoi. The place is owned and operated by an Aussie/Vietnamese couple and her (she’s the Vietnamese half) family.

I think we calibrated our expectations a bit too high.

We’d had such an amazing time at the home-stay in the rural village in Laos, where the family was clearly running a business taking on tourists but none-the-less welcomed us very warmly. The interactions we had with them felt genuine – down to earth and grounded in the simple kindness and straightforwardness we experienced again and again throughout Laos.

So we probably had a bit of that experience lingering in our minds as we anticipated something like a B&B with a farm-like/homey atmosphere at Phong Nha.

The place is more of a proper hotel though, a newly built two-story building with a lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs (complete with pool table) and even an in-ground pool out back. The owners were chummy enough but in an off-hand, impersonal way, and the place seemed geared towards younger backpackers, with drinking being the preferred evening activity for both guests and the Aussies working there.

Not that any of this is a bad thing, but it’s not what we expected (ah, those pesky expectations again!) and not necessarily the scene we’d go for.

Green relief

That being said, being out in pure countryside again after all the time we’d spent in busy cities and tourist spots made for a welcome and nice change. And what countryside it was!

I think I wrote in an early post that I never seem to tire of looking at rice paddies. I can safely say this remains true.

Brilliantly green fields stretched off into the distance just across the road from the hotel and whether from our balcony view or from paths walking or biking along or through the paddies, I just kept drinking in the gorgeous ocean of green stalks swaying in unison like a glowing cloth in the wind.

Low, rounded mountains framed the farmlands in shades of soft purple and blue, like something out of a painting. I’ve included some my photos below; I’ve tried to exercise restraint as most of the pictures I took ended up being simply a whole lot of green and things could get repetitive quite quickly! 🙂

Into the belly of the Earth

One day we visited the Phong Nha cave. It’s apparently a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and can get pretty crowded and loud, but we got lucky with our timing. The cave is nearly 55 kilometers long, with the first kilometer accessible by guided boats and illuminated for tourists’ benefit by dramatic, colorful lighting.

We had braced ourselves for kitsch but actually it was really spectacular. Entering the yawning mouth of the cave the temperature quickly drops as you are enveloped in darkness. Massive, incredible, rock formations, intricately patterned by centuries upon centuries of water flow, loom to either side of the pitch-black waters being quietly parted by the boat.

I let my imagination wander and at times felt like I was being peacefully rowed to my just desserts along the silent river Styx. 🙂

I didn’t bring my camera along that day, but I don’t think any photo would be able to convey the amazing feeling of being that deep in the earth or the beauty of the natural rock sculpture anyhow – you’ll just have to use your imagination! 😉

Little things I want to remember:

–       We saw numerous churches along the riverside as we explored the area. We didn’t find out any information about this influx of Christianity in the countryside, but it was fun and funny to see the familiar shapes of spires and crosses as we poked around.

–       The arrival of western tourists to the area already seemed to be making its mark on the locals. We were greeted with enthusiasm by village kids who knew only two words in English and used them with great gusto (and repetition): “Hello money!”

–       The sound of the baby buffalos calling out to their mothers across the rice fields. So cute! 🙂

–       Stopping at a random “restaurant” for a coffee on the way to Phong Nha cave. The woman who ran the place was very sweet and her two young grand kids were adorable. I liked the random chicken in a box on the shelf that would occasionally poke its head over the edge to check out the action at my table.

–       The sight and sounds of a large, chatty flock of ducks being “herded” home across wet fields each night as the sun sunk colorfully below the mountains.

–       The gorgeous sunset moped ride to the bus station – getting to see a thin new moon rise up over the fields as we wound along the curvy roads. Beautiful! (And much more fun than the subsequent hours spent waiting at the road-side bus stop watching bus after bus pass by while ours was two hours late!)

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“Hello money!”

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Farmer lost in a sea of green

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Rice close up

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Heading home with the day’s harvest

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(Lonely Planet descriptions of places we were considering using as pit stops included encouragement such as “Most people seem to be passing through the dismal town on their way elsewhere…” “There’s no reason to linger in Lao Bao…” “Quant Tri was once an important citadel city, but little of its old glory remains” “The sales pitch can be relentless, even intimidating. Some rowers have refused to budge until visitors purchased something.” (this for one of the more beautiful landscapes they recommended visiting) “Despite attempts to prettify the place with trees and parks, this is an industrial city through and through. There are precious few reasons to stop here…” It wasn’t all like this, but sometimes we got the feeling the authors of this particular LP didn’t actually like the country they were writing about very much!)

Quick notes on Hue

I feel like I posted a ton of photos from Hue (including a bit of info about the Citadel), so I will keep this entry brief.

I think Hue may have been our favorite stop in Vietnam. A nice-sized city (the population is around 330,000 according to Lonely Planet), it had a more relaxed atmosphere than crowded and totally urban Saigon and Hanoi. At the same time, its size allowed it to absorb the tourist tide more effectively than places like Hoi An and Dalat – it didn’t feel over-taken by tourism and for me had a nice grounded and “lived in” energy to it, if that makes any sense.

We also stayed at my favorite hotel in Vietnam, the Hue Holiday Hotel. Our room felt brand new, was spotlessly clean, and the staff were super accommodating and genuinely friendly. Excellent value for money too. The hotel was down a narrow alleyway, located in the touristy area of town but with Vietnamese homes just outside the hotel entrance. I loved catching glimpses of the families’ day to day lives as we came and went.

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Our room at the Hue Holiday Hotel – complete with real flowers on the bed

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The delightfully clean bathroom!

Another big positive about Hue for me is that I took the initiative to find a posh hotel about a 10 minute walk from where we were staying that had a small gym and a big pool, so a couple of times during our stay I got a work-out in. (If I remember correctly, this was at the Imperial Hotel. Insanely posh and a bit on the expensive side for the per-gym-visit price but access to the outdoor pool made it worth it) Aside from the obvious physical benefit, working out in some form or another is so good for my head space – it’s something I’m trying to do more often while we are still on the road.

Things I want to remember include:

– How wonderfully, genuinely fun it was to fly a kite!
– How infinitely patiently Roman untangled the kite line when it got into an incredibly huge tangle. Also the very sweet teacher who came to talk to us while he worked on the mess. 🙂
– The peaceful walk through the residential area on the north side of town and the friendly cyclo driver we met there.
– The lively atmosphere at the nightly street market along the riverside.

Less fun to remember is getting food poisoning; we actually had to extend our stay by one day because I was in no shape to travel. I can’t say for certain which restaurant may have made me sick. Most of the places we ate were all right but nothing special. The one restaurant in town I can recommend is Vegetarian Restaurant Bo De. Although Roman was less impressed than I was, I really enjoyed the interesting and tasty 100% vegetarian dishes, and I can guarantee that I didn’t get sick from their food! 🙂

Hoi An overview and travel notes

We enjoyed the return to sultry tropical heat in Hoi An after our cool down in Dalat.

Hoi An is an entire village in central Vietnam that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its centuries-old, fascinating mix of architecture.

It was once a port town that hosted traders from neighboring Asian and Southeast Asian countries to more distant destinations such as Holland, Portugal, France, Britain and even America.

Chinese and Japanese traders spent significant time in the town – four months a year while they would wait for favorable winds to escort their ships back home. As such, Chinese and Japanese aesthetics can still be seen in some of the town’s architecture today.

We’d heard the place can get pretty crowded with tourists, but that the beautiful buildings were worth a visit.

As Lonely Planet puts it, “More so than with other towns, the tourist economy is both a boon and a bane to little Hoi An. Without it, the alluring houses of the Old Town would have crumbled into the river years ago. With it, the face of the Old Town has been preserved but its people and purpose have changed beyond recognition…. (I)t’s so often choked with visitors that it feels more like a movie set than an authentic town.”

Having set our expectations before we arrived, we could take and enjoy it for what it was – a beautifully picturesque but somewhat-Disneyland-feeling representation of a historic Vietnamese port town that just happened to be located at what used to be a Vietnamese port town. A previous post has some photos of the town.

Food and accommodation notes

Hoi An also provided the best food we experienced in all of Vietnam. We had local specialties at Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 (thanks Pirmin for the recommendation 🙂 ) that were outstanding! “White rose” – delicate, delicious rice paper dumplings with succulent shrimp inside – and “cao lau” – satisfyingly thick noodles mixed with greens, bean sprouts and bacon-like slices of crispy pork – were the two local dishes we tried there. Genuine cao lau noodles can apparently only be found in Hoi An as they are specially made with local water that apparently gives them a distinct taste. All I know is that the combination of flavors and especially textures in the dish at Cafeteria 22 were amazing!

We also indulged in what for us has become total comfort food on this trip with some pretty darn good Indian fare at Shree Ganesh. The German-owned but Italian-themed Casa Verde had espresso and home-made ice cream that made my day.

After our experience in Dalat, we booked ahead at the TripAdvisor recommended Hai Au hotel (at this point we’ve pretty much given up using Lonely Planet for hotels – TripAdvisor tends to have much wider selection, more up-to-date reviews, and, very helpfully, photo documentation from guests). A bit on the pricey side at 35 dollars a night, it was a step up from our hotel in Dalat, with decent rooms, super fast wifi, a very nice breakfast buffet included in the price, and super friendly staff.

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White roses – delicate and delicious

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Super tasty cao lau

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Fragrant fish cooked in a banana leaf – also good although not as amazing as the local specialties. 🙂

Quick notes on Da Lat

I wrote a little bit about Da Lat back when we were actually there.

It took some doing to get there as our original flight was canceled due to a severe storm in the area. It worked out for the best though as I got sick with some sort of flu and was better off in bed burning off my fever than traveling on the day our flight had been scheduled. If only we knew before we got to the airport that it had been canceled! 😉

The cab drive up the mountain from the airport to the city itself was … exhilarating! Our cab driver had a penchant for speed and passing anyone and everyone on the road. Luckily for us his speedometer was broken and the needle sat reassuringly at 0 km/hour – I don’t think I want to know how fast he was actually driving! 😉

Da Lat is known for its cheesiness and serves as a starting point for regional bike tours of the Central Highlands. From Lonely Planet: “Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower-shaped radio tower, the horse drawn carriages or the zealously colourful heart-shaped cut-outs at the Valley of Love, this is a town that takes romance very seriously – yea, unto the full extent of kitsch.”

We decided to take limited part in Da Lat’s standard offerings, doing a bit of sight seeing but mostly just reveling in the change of scenery from Saigon and from the wonderful mountain atmosphere and cooler weather. We also decided against doing a bike tour – since we’d pretty much only just gotten over being so waterlogged from our bike adventure in Laos and the weather in Vietnam wasn’t any drier! 😉

The town was a gorgeous place to walk around and explore though, with some interesting architecture (from the surreal, over-the-top Crazy House to the slightly forlorn but interesting colonial-era train station).

I was mostly indulging in fantasies about Switzerland though; with a cozy little restaurant where we went for breakfast transforming into a chalet-style Swiss café in the mountains, or the drink we had along the lake bringing me back to times spent by the Zürich See. (Have I mentioned how grateful I am for the wonderful time and life I had in Switzerland?? If not, I am doing so now! 🙂 )

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Entering the Crazy House

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Locomotive at the train station

Accommodation and food notes

We hadn’t booked ahead, knowing that Da Lat is a tourist stop with plenty of hotels and that we weren’t in peak season. However, we were surprised to find that our first choices for hotels were all booked. We had expected things to be more like in Cambodia but throughout Vietnam it seemed that rooms the best hotels (as per Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) were always being snapped up very quickly.

We ended up staying at Hotel Chau Au – Europa, which had run down but interesting and spacious rooms and a super nice owner (although his wife was less friendly!). We didn’t find any amazing food while were there, but I really enjoyed the ambience and the food was quite all right at Art Café. Our breakfast spot was Chocolate Café – pretty average but the place just had something about it that charmed me. Maybe it was the fake flowers in the window! 🙂

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Fake flowers; oddly comforting

Last notes on Cambodia

Writing this from Hong Kong, our time in Cambodia already feels very distant. I’d thought I would have written my farewell post to Cambodia by now, but actually maybe it’s better this way.

“Good luck for you”

Our visit to Cambodia was intense for me. I’d done more pre-arrival research for it than for any of the other places we’ve been so far and thus came in with a lot on my mind to begin with. For reasons still not clear to me, I had bigger emotional reactions to things we experienced in Cambodia. The country seemed to contain more extremes than the other places we’d been – extreme poverty and extreme power, the presence of deep, jagged tragedy s well as incredible and pure beauty.

(By way of contrast, I’d describe India as having extremes too, but it has a much fuller spectrum: there is so much filling the space between light and dark there.)

After the likes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Cambodians definitely had a tougher edge.

I witnessed a lot more rough housing between kids and even adults. Play seemed to involved a lot more hitting, pushing and pulling than we’d seen anywhere and I even got hit – with a good amount of force but without any malice – by one boy in Battambang who was exuberant about the photos I took of him and his friends and wanted me to take more. It didn’t bother me at all, but it was something I could never imagine happening in the countries we’d been to before Cambodia.

One’s overall impression of a place is subject in part to completely random encounters and occurences. While we were in Cambodia, we happened upon four different funerals. These take place every day all over the world but it was striking to me that we kept crossing paths with funeral processions and ceremonies. The last place we had witnessed anything like this had been in Varanasi, where it’s simply a part of being in that city.

It didn’t feel like a morbid or depressing thing, but it left me with the feeling that death is very much present in Cambodia. While the reign of the Khmer Rouge is over, that recent history and all that happened off the back of that regime’s time in power remains a tangible presence in the country and its people.

It was rare for us to speak to people who had been adults during that time, but we did have more opportunity to talk to people from our generation. Each had a substantial list of relatives who had been lost during that dark period. When they would share this information with us, it pretty consistently had an air of deep, inherited grief combined with total matter-of-factness and acceptance – an interesting combination.

I felt currents of this sort of energy – deep passion as well as fatigued resignation – in other interactions we had. For example with drivers and guides who would have the chance to make really good money for a week or two – if they were the lucky one that a tourist would pick to hire out of the dozens of men all jostling to offer the same service.

Something small that I noticed everywhere we went in the country was that to close an interaction with us, people wouldn’t say “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” but “Good luck for you!”.

In a country where death, poverty and lack of opportunity are accepted and expected, perhaps the best one can hope for is the rare and good fortune to escape these circumstances – or just the luck to be that one tuk tuk driver that bags the generous tourist who tips so well that he and his family can eat for a month.

Emotional hindsight

If I’d written this a month ago, that might be the note that I’d have ended on. Time and contrast can be useful things though and getting some distance from the intensity of Cambodia plus some perspective thanks to our experiences in Vietnam, the strong reactions and emotions I felt while in Cambodia are softening into a more steady gratitude and affection for the country and its people.

Though I went in with far fewer expectations and pre-conceptions about Vietnam, I had a much harder time to connect with people and places there. I’ll write more about that in a separate post, but that experience has certainly tempered the way I’m thinking about our time in Cambodia.

The beauty of the place and of the people we had the chance to meet runs deep. The interactions we had with people – once the business side was agreed upon – were open and heartfelt. When I was first living in Switzerland, I read somewhere that the Swiss are like coconuts – tough to crack but sweet once you get on the inside. Maybe Cambodians are like rambutan fruit; a bit spiky and rough but also beautiful and colorful and soft on the inside. 🙂

Travel notes

On a slightly different subject, the list of locations visited in Cambodia is relatively short, compared to other places we’ve been. We’re conscious that, as much as we’d often love to, we can’t spend infinite amounts of time in each country we visit. We decided to experiment, choosing fewer stops in Cambodia but hoping that having a bit of time in each would still allow us to get a good feel for the country. In the end the balance of our time got tipped towards Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both places were fascinating, thought-provoking and clearly essential to any visit to Cambodia.

But I feel strongly that getting off the typical tourist spots and seeing Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang was equally vital. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably try to spend even more time exploring towns and villages – although I’d also allow myself more than four days for Angkor as well. 🙂

Over all though, I think we managed to get a good mix into our month and a bit in Cambodia and I’m grateful for the chance to see all we did – even the less comfortable, more challenging parts.

One more random note – I stumbled upon a great blogger whose different perspectives on Cambodia were really interesting and helpful for me while were traveling there. Check her out if you want another perspective on the country. 🙂

Our Cambodia itinerary

June 20 Kratie Morhautdom Hotel
June 24 Phnom Penh Golden Gate Hotel
July 3 Kampong Chhnang Sovannphum Hotel
July 6 Battambang Royal Hotel
July 9 – 22 Siem Reap Angkor Pearl Hotel

Current events: recharging and recalibration

Hello from Hong Kong!

So I nearly but didn’t quite finish blogging about Cambodia while we were in Hanoi, and now we’ve even left Vietnam. We’re here for two weeks as a bit of a break (a break from “being on vacation”? I know, I know… 😉 ).

By the end of Vietnam, I (possibly we – Vietnam was definitely not top of Roman’s list of destinations either) felt like I was full up. As though there wasn’t room enough in my brain for any new input. I’d walk past scenes, thinking, I can see why this is beautiful or interesting or would make a good picture, but there wasn’t any motivation to try to capture what I was witnessing.

I also couldn’t imagine eating another spring roll and I’d had enough of the dull-as-dirt mockery of bread that is the part of the standard hotel breakfast (I’m not into eggs and the pho at the last place we stayed smelled like a bathroom. :-P). I was fed up with smokey cafes and even when our hotels were decent, I started having fantasies about our old bed in our old apartment in Zürich – comfortable, clean, familiar. Smelling like home.

Don’t worry, I’m not ready to quit this trip. It’s just come time for a recharge.

Time to catch our breath after all the places we’ve been and things we’ve seen over the past months. Time to check in with our goals, our travel wish list, our budget. Time also for a bit of comfort and nurturing.

So here we are in Hong Kong.

WORLD-away-from-southeast-Asia Hong Kong, with its truly global mix of denizens, its international retail scene (hello H&M – probably the only international clothes shop within my price range here 😉 ), its amazing neighborhood markets, its fascinating, smelly chinese medicine shops, its belching, steamy-exhaust-producing double-decker buses and it’s clattering, antique-feeling double-decker trams, its red and white taxis, its ever-dripping, ever-humming air conditioners, its hilly streets, its lounging cats, its well-obeyed pedestrian traffic signals, its towering metallic-colored sky scrapers glittering in the golden afternoon sun.

It’s feeling great being in an honest-to-God city again after so long. I love that sensation of feeling so little – not in terms of significance but of being dwarfed by all that architecture, like an ant in a man-made garden.

It’s also a nice change not feeling like such a significant cog in a place’s economy. (In my head) I stand out here because I’m in my practical travel clothes and most westerners here seem to be in business get up or fashionistas. (This difference reminds me of how nice it is not to be in an office job any more and makes me happy!) It’s a very different feeling from being the obvious Western tourist and trying to keep my balance as I negotiate between doing my best to be culturally aware and spend my money responsibly and keeping zen after the 20th tuk tuk, cyclo or moto driver in half as many minutes asks us where we are going and then starts relentlessly chirping tourist spots at us that are all within walking distance…

We’re not doing anything touristy while we are here (not on purpose any way 🙂 ). We’ve rented a great little studio apartment (thank you airbnb!). It’s the cleanest, coziest place we’ve been since I don’t know how long and we’ve quickly settled in. Today, our second full day here, I caught myself referring to it as home. 🙂

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Comfy couch and a terrace!

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View from the couch – bed, storage, kitchen

Went grocery shopping the afternoon we arrived. The sensation of holding onions in my hands, to feel which ones I wanted to take home with me, was as comforting as a hug. The kitchen is basic but I’ve packed the fridge with produce and the pantries with staples and I am in pure heaven being able to cook again! Not to mention having full control of what I’m eating and being able to eat healthy. I also signed up at a gym that first day and have been twice already. I’ve found a yoga studio that I’ll be trying out tomorrow. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

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Tonight’s dinner – organic roasted veggies with feta over fusilli

It’s also time to get organized and ready for the next big destination – mainland China. This is a big one and the more I read about it the more excited I’m getting, so I really hope that these weeks will get me fully recharged so I have fresh energy for it.

God willing I’ll also catch up on the blog! I have a lot of cooking and yoga and China research I want to do, so the Vietnam posts may end up being a bit abbreviated… We’ll see how it all comes together. 🙂

On a random side note, my fascination with different currency continues. Hong Kong bills are big and bold, involving lions and strong colors and endorsed by the likes of HSBC (the bank’s logo is actually on the notes – that’s a first for me!). The 10 dollar note really stands out though. It looks like the color palette was lifted straight from Barbie and the Rocker’s wardrobe/stage set. (realize I am dating myself.) I totally love it, but I wonder if any men ever feel emasculated when they have to use it to pay for something?

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An intro to Angkor

So of course I’d heard of Angkor Wat, but it took coming to Cambodia and doing a bit of reading for me to realize it’s not just that one particularly large and famous temple or the setting for the Tomb Raider movie (yes, I realize I am ignorant – that’s why we’re traveling 😉 ). For anyone else who might be as uninformed as I was, here some background (courtesy of Wikipedia, UNESCO and Lonely Planet).

A bit of history

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park covers about 400 square kilometers (UNESCO) and contains hundreds upon hundreds of ancient temples, “ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.” (Wikipedia)

A photo of an ariel map of Angkor, just to give you a feeling of the size. It’s clickable if you want to zoom for a closer look.

In its heyday between the 9th and 15th centuries, Angkor was the buzzing center of the Khmer Empire, a city which archeologists speculate supported up to one million people.

The stone and brick buildings which remain today are nearly exclusively religious monuments: “…the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods,” while the palaces, houses and public buildings used by the city’s residents were built of wood which has long since disintegrated. (Lonely Planet)

Angkor encompasses multiple religions, from indigenous to Shaivism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva the destroyer), Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Vishnu the sustainer), both Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism and even the “cult of personality” in which kings represented themselves as deities. (Wikipedia) Some of the temples started out their lives as Hindu houses of worship and were later repurposed for Buddhist use.

Angkor today

While many of the ruins have been partially excavated, they remain set in an incredibly beautiful, atmospheric natural environment, surrounded by idyllic forests of trees so old and huge and wise that it seems they must have been seeds when the buildings were still freshly constructed.
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Massive trees growing around some wooden steps behind Baphoun

Bird, frogs and insect song adds to the magical atmosphere. While Western access to the park is strictly controlled, many Cambodians live in small villages on the grounds and we’d often see verdant rice fields stretching along the road between sites. The nature is just amazing and as much a part of the incredible atmosphere and experience as the temples themselves.

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Beautiful rice fields outside Banteay Srei

Many of the temple ruins were overtaken by the encroaching jungle over the centuries after Angkor’s fall. The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient was heavily involved in the restoration of many of the temples during the 20th century; in 1907 the ruins saw their first arrival of Western tourists (200 of them!). (Lonely Planet) Today, the site receives around 2 million tourists per year.

As incredible as they are, the ruins have not been fully explored or excavated and many are lacking proper infrastructure to ensure they aren’t damaged by all those trampling tourists (us included :-/ ). While the situation isn’t black and white, indications are that Cambodia’s notoriously crooked government is more interested in increasing tourist traffic (and the related cash flow) than preservation.

Entrance to the park is 20 dollars per day, 40 for a three-day pass, 60 for a week’s entrance. We spent nearly four full days and had a really satisfying mix of sites and experiences. I could imagine having gone for the full week pass, only with Roman knocked out with a bad cold at the start of our time, we’d already been kicking around town for a while before we got to see any of Angkor and our visa was running out even as we were feeling like we’d gotten our fill of Cambodia.

I’d heard that most tourists only spend on average three days in all of Cambodia, which means spending even less than three days at Angkor. I can’t even begin to understand how or why someone would do this, although we did see plenty of turbo-tourists zipping in to a temple and leaving again before we’d even finished enjoying the amazing and intricate carvings of a single room. I suppose a little culture is better than no culture at all though. 😉

Siem Reap

The jumping off point for all the temple exploration is the town of Siem Reap. This place has apparently exploded in recent years with the increase of tourism. Roman has a friend who stayed there ten years ago; the street our hotel was on now in 2011 didn’t even exist when he was there apparently.

The bus we took from Battambang pulled into town along a broad road that was bordered by massive, pristine, posh-looking block hotels. The center of town feels more like being at Epcot center or a Caribbean island than Cambodia: a commercialized mish-mash of international and Khmer restaurants, bars, tschotschke shops and boutiques, throbbing with loud music and tipsy tourist crowds at night.

There’s benefits for tourists – high quality food and competitive pricing on hotels (well, some hotels. Lonely Planet lists one whose rates start at USD 750 per night!!) – which we were happy to take advantage of. It’s not all bad, it just didn’t feel like we were in Cambodia any more… It did make me all the more grateful for the time we had in Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang. And to be fair, the vibe feels more normal and there are some nice places around as soon as you get away from the microcosm of “Pub Street”.

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Pub street starts to light up for the night (Thanks for the picture Roman! 🙂 )

Speaking of hotels, we stayed at the Angkor Pearl. At USD 16 per night, this place was excellent value for the money. High quality, spotless rooms, simple but really tasteful and comfortable. Nice, firm mattress – among some of the best beds we’ve experienced this whole trip Breakfast wasn’t included but was cheap at USD 2.50 per person. It was a short walk from the action at Pub Street. Definitely recommendable!

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