A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: dbgomes

India – Agra

For love or money

overcast 32 °C

You are in a deep sleep in the sleeper class cabin of an Indian Railways train bound for Agra. Before hitting the hay, you read and signed off a document which told you to beware of people on the train who may drug you or steal your bags. You backpack is your pillow and your dreamland is shattered by SCREAM SCREAM!!!!!!! Being on the top of a 3 tier bunk, you shoot up and hit your head on the roof of the train. The grate that separates your bunk from your neighbour is all you see in the darkness whilst still in a sleepy/bumpy daze. At this point I had no idea of when, what and where I was as heartbeats rang in my ears.

Needless to say the entire carriage woke up and with half of it filled with westerners, no doubt everyone had the same thoughts as I did being snapped out of the sleepy daze... Someone is trying to steal her bags. Out of nowhere a train guard runs along the corridor but nothing eventuates as one girls bad dream left us all sleeping a little lighter after that!

Apart from the screams, our second Indian train ride was uneventful and again much more comfortable than our expectations before coming to the country. We pulled into Agra early in the morning and haggled a still overpriced tuk tuk to take us to our accommodation overlooking the local rooftops and Taj Mahal.


It was only 9am and with a pretty good sleep on the train, we still had all day to explore. This is why sleeper trains are the way to travel! We decided to leave the Taj for the following day and try to get out to Fatehpur Sikri (FS) 40km outside of Agra. The local busses left from out near the bigger train station so we took the opportunity to book our next tickets to the Himalaya foothills. There were no tickets available, but the man said that we could go on the waiting list which should be fine. We weren’t so sure when he said that we were numbers 63 and 64 on the waiting list, but we left with some more convincing.

The bus ride out to FS was pretty straightforward although we had an extremely friendly and talkative Indian man sat next to us. It would have been nice except that his Indian English accent was incredibly thick. I have worked with a number of Indian guys in my recent work so think that I have a better ear for it than most, but looking blankly at this guy as he asks you the same thing 6 times just feels rude.

Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal empire for 14 years from 1571. The emperor constructed the city after a prophecy (given to him in the village) came true that he would have an heir to the throne. Prophecies or not, an inadequate water supply led to the city being abandoned shortly after his death becoming the ghost city it is today. The short prominence resulted in well built palace and mosque that have been well preserved.

It may have been a ghost city after its exodus, but the modern day draw of tourism crowds means that another bustling town welcomed us close to the ruins when the bus pulled in. As tourism and touts go hand in hand in India, we politely tried to shoo away our followers. One particularly persistent guy followed us all the way to the mosque giving us directions again and again as we tried to ignore them. The mosque was impressive with imposing gates standing high on a rocky outcrop above the market town, but it was impossible to peacefully take in the surroundings with continually being approached by tout after tout.

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We successfully snuck out of the mosque without our follower spotting us. Thankfully, in the palace ruins only official guides are allowed in which meant there was only one non pushy guide waiting inside the gate and then we were into peace and quiet at last. It was pretty quiet around the extensive ruins so we could slowly walk around and take in the intricate carvings and palace ruins calmly without always being on the defensive.

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There were plenty of dark clouds looming while we looked around the palace grounds, but luckily nothing fell while we were there. On the drive back to Agra we passed through some towns that had felt the wrath of the monsoonal rain storm.

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A typical scene of rubbish and animals in India

Back at our hotel in Agra we woke up early the following day to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, but a thick blanket of cloud stopped that for us. We got another few minutes of sleep again and headed out of the guesthouse to try and get to the Taj Mahal early to beat the crowds. Even though we ended up getting there 15 minutes after the west gate opened, we were quite surprised to find that there was hardly a queue at the ticket window or gates. The extreme markup on ticket prices that foreigners pay makes it an expensive morning out, but i guess it has to be made cheap for the Indian tourist otherwise no one would be able to visit.

The first view you get of the Taj Mahal is through the gates of the inner walls. Breathtaking is certainly an apt description. Like a lot of other major buildings and monuments around the world, you have seen countless pictures of them over time which can take away from the initial surprise and leave you a little underwhelmed. I mean the India Lonely Planet graces its cover with the Taj, so we had been looking at it a hundred times a day to this point anyway. Thankfully, seeing the Taj Mahal in person blows every picture out of the water. Its something about the imposing size of the place, the white marble, the intricate carvings that you can’t comprehend from a sole picture of it. Anyway maybe it’s just us, but we weren’t expecting much before coming to Agra but we were happy to have those expectations blown out of the water.


So I think most people would have heard the story that the Taj Mahal was built by the Emperor for his wife as a symbol of his love for her. But to add some further context to the story, the Emperor was grief stricken when his third wife died giving birth to their 14th child (14!! Im not surprised!!). The mausoleum and surrounding buildings took 22 years to complete utilising a workforce of 20,000 Indians and 1,000 elephants bringing materials from all over India, the Arab World and China. Around 2 million tourists pump through the gates each year to take in the marvel although 90% of those tourists are Indian. As the number one tourist attraction, it still doesn’t fail to bring in some healthy rupees for the city.

We started off by taking in the classic view of the Taj from the South entrance looking up past the pools and gardens. There weren’t a great deal of people around, but it still required a bit of waiting around and watching out for queue jumpers to get front and centre for some photos.


We then walked along the pools and through the gardens on our way up to the mausoleum taking in the views as the Taj looms more and more overhead. Taking our shoes off (its a requirement) we walked around the Taj and through the mosques that stand side by side with the tomb. Going inside the Taj Mahal itself you get to see the tomb of the dead wife sat perfectly in the middle of the main dome room. When the Emperor himself died, he was put in a marble coffin next to the wife’s, but it kind of throws out the symmetrical feel that the rest of the place has to it. Legend says that there was going to be an identical black Taj Mahal built on the other bank of the river to the north for the Emperor.


After the relatively quick visit to see the tomb, Tan and I sat down at the base of one of the 4 towers that surround the building and watched the other tourists as they came and went. It was really nice to just take in the place. There isn’t actually much to do here and you could see everything in 20 minutes, but we enjoyed not feeling like we needed to rush around and just sit down and enjoy some relative quiet which you don’t get that much of in India. As we were walking out the thick clouds started to break up a little and offered some hazy blue sky to our photos

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After a quick morning tea break we got a tuk tuk out to the train station and made our way back to Delhi ready to head north to the Himalaya foothills. So far our other train journeys had been overnight trains, so you don’t really get to see much from the train. However it was interesting and enjoyable to travel by the day. For the first time we really got to see the India outside of the big cities. The train rumbled by past lots of farmland and small towns. The sleeper class section of the train is really good to watch the world go by with open windows in the carriage. Although my favourite place to experience Indian trains is from the doorways. Unlike our western trains with locked doors while the train is in motion, safety is less of a concern and the doors are left wide open the whole way. I liked standing at the doorway feeling the warm breeze, getting a rush as the trains passed in the opposite direction and watching India pass by. Also you see a lot of the slums that have built up on the vacant land that immediately surrounds the train network. You witness simple tarpaulin on a few poles with a family of 6 sleeping on bare floor with only a small gas stove and you realise that life doesn’t come much poorer than this.

Living at its simplest form


The train came to a stop regularly on the journey and it was funny to watch everyone jump out of the carriages to relieve themselves in the bushes by the tracks and have a smoke. I caught this one such time on camera where a few people were nearly caught out as the train pulled away shortly after coming to a stop.

Daniel – We only came to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal because we thought we had to, but actually it was an impressive sight. Fatehpur Sikri was a worthwhile daytrip and we have mostly figured out the game that you play with the touts now.

Tanya – So the Taj Mahal, if I had have been wearing socks they would have truly been blown off. It was an incredible sight with a cute story to make it special. We have read a lot of advice recommending people to get out of Agra town immediately, but the 2 days we spent there were enjoyable enough and very quiet compared to Varanasi so well worth the stop.

Posted by dbgomes 08:11 Archived in India Tagged india round_the_world Comments (0)

India – Varanasi

Holy Cow!!

sunny 42 °C

If India was a first date, you would be wondering how you managed to be at dinner with Shriek . When you first arrive you immediately notice the dust, rubbish, cow pats, ever present touts, relentless traffic, vehicle horns, smog and incredibly poor people. It takes a few days but slowly you look beyond all of these first impressions and start to see the throbbing pulse of the billion people calling India home. Various religions, sub cultures and historical beginnings make a unique melting pot of people who when you give them time will be the friendliest people you meet (If they are not trying to make money off you).

Those first impressions welcomed us as we left the Delhi International Airport. We had arranged a pickup service from our guesthouse and initially the pickup guy was nowhere to be found. We were expecting an onslaught of touts to harass us, but actually at the airport we had very few people come up to ask us where we were going. Eventually our ride turned up and we buckled up (metaphorically speaking) in the back of his little Suzuki van and took in the experience.

No longer beginners at this travel game, we think we are quite used to the hairy traffic and crazy drivers that the world has thrown up, but I personally think the Indians might just take the cake. Ignoring road rules (if there are any), squeezing past other cars, wrong way down roads all at high speed is nothing new to what we have experienced but India does it faster, closer and with even more human traffic around than anywhere else we have been. The drive took us to the guesthouse past slums, cows and so many people. That was the thing that I first noticed, people are walking everywhere. The major highway from the airport had countless people sitting in the median strip, walking between the full speed traffic seemingly oblivious to the world around them. China may have more people, but we didn’t see the amount of people crammed in to one place like it is here in India.

So we began in the heaving mass of a city that is Delhi but we didn’t want to linger long, so the first morning we headed into the central the railway station to try and sort out some train tickets. So many people say that the way to get to know India is on the railways. It has one of the biggest train networks in the world and India Railways is the world’s largest employer with 1.5 million staff on its books. That’s got to be headache for a HR department! The railways are the way that all Indians get around the country so most trains sell out 120 days in advance when the tickets are released to the general public. Fortunately the railway know that tourists need tickets on much shorter demand, so they usually hold back up to 20 tickets for the popular train routes which get released 48 hours before the departure just for tourists. We found the tourist booking office at the railway station and managed to get some sleeper class (ie cattle class/bottom of the titanic class/for the adventurous traveller as a website described it) tickets for the following day to Varanasi and then onto Agra for a few days after. It was relatively simple process that seems to work well enough for us.

After that we decided to see a little bit of Delhi, starting with the Red Fort. Built in the 1600´s for the emperor it takes up a large chunk of the old town. We weren’t too worried about going inside so just got a few pictures from the exterior before walking past the large Jama Masjid mosque and through some interesting streets back to the metro station. The streets were lined with identical shops for a block or so. So if you wanted some copper pots and pans, just come to this one block and there were 20 shops selling the same pots and pans out of the front of very simple little shops. It was the same with the mechanics (all seemingly replacing worn out car horns – this is no surprise once you have spent a day or two walking the streets) It was a good way to appreciate how the day to day life works in the city of 15million people.


We caught our sleeper train out of Delhi bound for Varanasi as the sun was setting over the outskirts of the city. The train wasn’t as bad as we were thinking. When we booked the tickets, the man said that our area would have other travellers in it, and sure enough there was a French couple and Korean pair in our little enclave of six bunk beds. As we were sat there a train guard brought around a bit of paper that said that the sleeper trains were not safe at night, you should chain your luggage to the seats and avoid talking to anyone about your travel plans. Righo then!


Along the aisle of the train were a further two bunks in our area and there was a young Indian guy on one of those bunks. He said hello to me and we started chatting. Despite the warning paper that we had read, I felt fine talking to this guy, mainly because his English wasn’t too great. I always find that the con men always have great English, as it helps them with their scams. As it turned out, the guy was very friendly, and was very grateful to be able to practice his English with me. He told us to sleep with our bags to keep them safe and told us what Varanasi was like amongst some deep discussions about the world. It was also our first introduction into the strange custom that Indian people have where talking about money is not a problem. Our guide book said that this was the case, but it is still strange to have someone asking you how much you earn in your country, how much your plane ticket cost and all other things that westerners consider rude to ask a person about. Had we not read about this, we would have been thinking that we were being sized up for someone to rob us. We have experienced this custom everywhere we have been in India! The guide book says to take it as an opportunity to ask the same back to the people to understand their life too.

We awoke as the train pulled into Varanasi Station and we had a pickup organised with our guesthouse again. The auto rickshaw raced through the crowded streets as we overtook cows and other vehicles like a race car. The historical part of Varanasi has tight lanes weaving through the buildings down to the river where no vehicles can get to. So we abandoned the rickshaw on the outskirts of the old town and walked the rest of the way to the guesthouse. It was lucky we had the driver to follow, as I was lost within minutes of getting setting foot into the alleys.

The guesthouse showed us up to the rooftop which had views over the river and quickly started to sell us a boat tour along the Ghats with them. The price was a bit steep, but we thought it might be easier to just do this than go down by our self to find someone who would also try to overcharge us.

The sacred Ganga River over the rooftops of Varanasi

Varanasi is the most sacred of cities to the Indian people and thought to be one of the oldest living cities in the world with a continuous city dating back to 1400BC. Mark Twain wrote of Varanasi:
‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’

The city is the heart of the Hindu universe, with pilgrims coming here to die so that they can escape the cycle of rebirth and be eternally with the gods. The Ganges river is the almightily cleanser and the holy water to wash away sins and give over family members in cremations and water burials.

Since our first boat trip on the Ganges would be timed for sunset, we had the day to explore the laneways. The guesthouse recommended staying relatively close as ‘we were not experienced enough and could easily get lost’ so looked around close by and found a good place for food to get out of the streets and the cows who rule the laneways. We had inadvertently timed our stay in Varanasi for the month of festivals. Every weekend during July thousands of pilgrims descend on the city for the festival of Shiva where they wash in the river and take the sacred river water to the Shiva temples. This meant that the thin laneways were full of people dressed in orange (the colour of Hindu) chanting and moving from temple to temple. The colour and noise of Varanasi is really what makes the city a unique experience.

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When the afternoon came around, we headed out with our guesthouse owner and two Korean tourists to experience the Ghats from the waterside. The 80 Ghats are bathing steps that stretch all the way along the river bank. There are also a couple of the Ghats that are ‘Burning Ghats’ where public cremations are performed. Our guesthouse was located right near Dasaswamedh Ghat, which was alive with hundreds of people preparing for the nightly ceremony.


We hopped onto the boat which was being rowed by a young boy no more than 13yrs old. And he earned his pay as we slowly made our way upriver against the pretty strong current of the Ganga. On the way up the river the sights of pilgrims washing, preying and worshiping the holy river all awash with orange, incense burning and cremations taking place it was unlike you will see anywhere else in the world. We couldn’t do much else but watch and take in the scenes as the sunset added some more orange to the sky.

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A burning Ghat with cremations under way

Our boat rower boy finally got a rest as we turned back and let the river take us downstream back to Dasaswamedh Ghat ready for the nightly ‘ganga aarti’ ceremony. We added our boat to the many that were already parked up to watch the ceremony from the water. There was lots of fire, smoke and music of the hour long ceremony and watching all of the Indian people taking in the atmosphere was just as interesting. We finished off the night with a good curry backed with the smooth sounds of a sitar and drum at the good restaurant that became our safe place to eat for the time in Varanasi.

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It was back onto the river again early in the morning for sunrise. The river was a lot more peaceful with only a few people washing and starting their day down by the river unlike the crowds and noise of the prior night. We were passed by people carrying dead relatives covered in silk on their way to the burning ghat. The river had also risen in level a fair bit from the prior day but it was still nothing when the guide pointed out the watermarks on the buildings where the river can get in the worst of the floods. As we were paddling our way down past the cremations and early morning bathing the older boat driver for the morning said to us that we could drink the river water because it is sacred. Unfortunately blind faith doesn’t hide the truth for us. As sacred as the Ganges river may be, along the stretch of river at Varanasi there are 30 large sewers discharging into the water combined with heavy metals dumped into the river by factories upstream and decomposing bodies resulting in the water being septic. Water that is safe to bathe in (let alone drink) should have no more than 500 faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. The Ganges has 1,500,000 per 100mL!! Yeah I will skip the taste test thanks buddy.

Cremations under way

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Back on dry land, our guesthouse owner took us for a walking tour through the tight twisting alleys of old Varanasi. We went to a few temples and took in more of the city. Tanya was suffering with a bit of a chest infection so the guesthouse owner kindly took us around to a doctor who sorted her out with some antibiotics for only $8 consultation and drugs. The doctors clinic was very basic with a young boy on a drip in the little waiting room and a small examination room off the back separated by a thin curtain

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Interesting wood carvings...

For the rest of the day and the following morning before our train ride we just roamed the laneways, got lost and took in the bizarre sights which is really the best way to experience the city

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Everything is old school around here

Daniel – I wouldn’t ever describe Varanasi as a beautiful city, but simply the most unique experience we have ever had in a city. As far as an introduction to India goes, nothing illustrates the spirituality and culture as clearly as Varanasi does!

Tanya – Plenty of people have said about India ‘You’ll either love it or hate it’. Navigating our way through the filthy streets that I’d relate to medieval Europe, but doing so in extreme heat and humidity with a chest infection, Ill be honest and say that I was starting the trip off in the ‘hate it’ camp. But the vibrance of this city of life and death is something that we have not experienced in a year of travels. Maybe India is a place I could grow to love.

Posted by dbgomes 15:40 Archived in India Tagged india round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam – Halong Bay

How Long... Ha Long

sunny 36 °C

Probably what I had been looking forward to most in South East Asia was saved till last. Ha Long Bay is a world heritage site and one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature. Legend says that the Vietnamese people called to the gods for a dragon to help them in battle with the Chinese. A mother dragon with her child dragon were sent from the heavens, but when they came to Ha Long Bay they gave up on fighting and stayed because it was so beautiful. Those dragons, you can never trust them!!

So our final overnight bus from Hue brought us into Vietnam’s cultural capital and historical capital of the North, Hanoi. Checking into a hotel we quickly scouted around for a company to spend a night on a junk boat in the bay. There are around 1500 boats that operate in Ha Long Bay ranging from super luxury to super terrible. As enjoying a night in the Bay is a once in a lifetime experience, we were keen to make sure we steered clear of the latter. We settled on a company who were good value but promising a high level of service. We will see if they deliver!

The bus picked us up from the hotel and an hour or so into the trip from Hanoi we made a shopping stop. Wasting 40 minutes sat around not wanting to buy any overpriced handcrafts, I would have much preferred spending this time relaxing on the boat. Getting back into the bus the landscape started to get more dramatic as we passed plenty of rice paddies framed with limestone mountains in the distance


Out at Ha Long City Port, there were swathes of tourists and just as many boats chugging around making their pickups before heading straight out again. A lot of the boats looked less than seaworthy, in desperate need of a paint job and packed to the brim. We had sinking feelings ourselves that our trip might not be too good. Fortunately though as a boat approached the jetty, it looked promising and with relief we were asked to board the boat. There were only 14 of us on our boat which was a really good group size to make it not crowded on board but also friendly enough for a chat with someone. The fit out on the boat was very good too, high quality wooden interior, nice cabins with air-conditioning and some good sun decks we were instantly happy that our $55 was a bargain. Actually, we got told not to say how much we paid to the other people as some had paid double that amount.

Our welcome lunch onboard

We immediately sat down and enjoyed a really tasty and filling lunch of seafood, fish, chicken and vegetables as we crossed from the mainland to the archipelago of 2000 islands that sit off the coastline. After finishing the lunch we got to finally sit on deck and enjoy the views as we started to weave in and out of the dramatic islands.

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We pulled into a bay where we stopped at a cave, known as Surprising Cave. The first thing we noticed was the amount of boats around. Any tranquillity of the place is quickly lost with hundreds of boats moving in and out to drop off loads of tourists. Unfortunately it becomes part and parcel of being an incredible place that so many people come to see it, us included.

After we got off our boat we walked up to the cave entrance and our guide told us the legend of the Ha Long Bay dragons and the history of the caves. Once we got through the first part of the cave, we found out why the cave is referred to as the ‘Surprising Cave’ before walking around the rest of the impressive cavern. We have seen a fair few caves on the year long journey, but even so, this one was still very good.

Hmmm, surprising


The view from the cave out to the bay was quite nice too and we got the obligatory photos before waiting for our boat to collect us again amongst the fruit sellers.


Back on the boat we spent the afternoon kayaking around the bay for a short 30 minutes of allocated time before heading to an island where we walked up a few hundred steps to a vantage point over the bay. The view was great, even with the small armada of boats that were raiding the bay. We had a chance to swim at the island before getting back on the boat, however closer inspection of the water turned us away from that idea. The scenery of Ha Long Bay is stunning, but unfortunately the imprint that tourism is leaving on it is sad to see.


We moored up soon after and enjoyed another good meal onboard and watched the sun set behind a big storm cloud which cast shadows across the sky before putting on a light show of its own. We played some cards into the night in the tranquillity of the bay before a comfortable sleep in the airconditioned cabins.


As we were walking through the cave earlier in the day I was looking up at the ceiling and busted my toe on a step, leaving a bloody hole in the end of it. Luckily there was a Dentist on board... Mateo’s profession of pulling teeth also lends itself nicely to patching up toes it seems :-)


We set our alarms for sunrise in the morning. It wasn’t bad, especially seeing it over the landscape of Ha Long Bay, but we should have got up about half an hour earlier to get the best colour of the morning.


The rest of the day we got to just relax on the boat with only a quick stop on the way back to the port. The scenery for the two days was absolutely amazing and we had managed to get some good luck with our boat, but the crowded feel of the bay with all the boats unfortunately distracts you a little bit.


Our plan for after the boat trip was to get ourselves across to Cat Ba Island which is the biggest of the islands in Ha Long so we could enjoy the scenery by our self for a while. While we were on the junk boat, we asked the guide for info of how to get there. Unfortunately in Vietnam, everyone can organise stuff for you and get a healthy commission from doing so. Therefore giving you information on getting somewhere by yourself doesn’t pay any dividends. So we first got told that he could sort out a hotel and boat over to Cat Ba (The most expensive way naturally). After we said that we wanted to catch the public ferry that we read about, he said it would be very hard and hotels would be full over on the island so we couldn’t just sort that out when we arrived. After constantly turning down his offers and friendly advice regarding how difficult it would be, we finally convinced him that we were happy to just get ourselves over there and all we needed doing was dropping off at an intersection on the road back to Hanoi. At our final lunch stop at the port, the guide told us that he couldn’t drop us at the road, and we would have to find our own way there (even though it was on the way!!). Fed up with misinformation and his offers anyway, we shared taxi to the docks where the public ferry departed from.

For about $2 each we got to Cat Ba on the public ferry (opposed to the $20 each that our guide could have sorted for us) and it wasn’t overly difficult after getting pointed in the right direction. Naturally we were the odd ones out on the boat, as it was full of Vietnamese with only 3 other western tourists on the ferry. The funny thing about the ferry crossing, is that it its route was probably even more impressive than the Junk boat route!

The Cat Ba Ferry


We had to negotiate a share taxi (with the other westerners) at the northern port on Cat Ba island, which quickly came down from 500,000 dong each to 20,000 dong each once we pointed at the sign that showed the bus fares to Cat Ba town should be 15,000. Once in town we rented 3 motorbikes and set off to find somewhere simple to stay on a nice quiet beach somewhere on the island. Before we set off, we wanted to get some ice for our carton of beers that we had been carrying around since Hanoi (we got it for the boat but was not allowed it on there as they had an overcharging Bar for drinks). The best ideas come when there is the greatest need, and we solved the problem of warm beers quite nicely...

The moto luggage compartment, a perfect cooler box

We hit the road and drove out through some beautiful scenery. We came across a little cove with not another person around and parked up the bikes, got out some ice cold beers and enjoyed them on the beach with a swim to follow. As we were leaving town, Heloise was one of the other westerners who was on the ferry, and she had rented a bike too so she joined our little convoy for the afternoon.

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Our nice little deserted cove


The 6 of us got back on our bikes and continued on looking for somewhere to sleep, we didn’t have much luck though by the time we reached the end of the road, so turned back to head for Cat Ba town for a place there. Unfortunately Heloise, had picked up a flat tyre on the last stretch of road, but we weren’t far from a place that could fix it. When she went to get her money and phone out of the storage compartment on the bike she realised that they were missing. She had left her stuff in the bikes while we were at the cove and someone must have opened up the bikes while we were down at the beach!


Getting the tyre changed held us up from seeing the sunset, and we ended up riding back in the dark. We found a place to stay for a reasonable rate and good enough rooms before getting some food along the main road.

Love a bit of ‘Fried Crap’ in my spring rolls

View from our rooms in the morning

Back to just the 5 of us again in the morning we stocked up the bikes with more beer and ice and headed into the centre of the island to the national park. There was an hour walk in the national park up to a vantage point. It turned out to be the most sweaty, laborious walk that we have probably done in the year of travel with 38 degree heat and 90% humidity hard conditions to walk in for 10 minutes, let alone an hour of solid uphill. The inland views from the top were good, but not as stunning as they would have been looking off into the sea with the surrounding islands. We just welcomed the wind at the peak which gave us a moments respite from the sweat!

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Ice box and a cup holder too, i’m getting me one of these back home

We then stopped at hospital cave, which was an interesting stop. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese built a pretty extensive hospital in this cave with some smart defences and escape systems. We were shown around the cave and given the history, but the guide was a lot more interested in showing us his collection of coins and notes from around the world. He had a banknote from 38 countries in his wallet which he showed us, but it was his US$2 note from 1967 that was his pride and joy!

The entrance to hospital cave

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The view from hospital cave

After lunch back in town, we headed back out to the west coast for sunset. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t as clear as it was the prior day, so we didn’t get too great a sunset. More ice cold beers made up for that however!


On the final morning we headed over to some of the beaches close to town for a final swim before getting a ferry and bus back to Hanoi. We spent a final night together with nice food, incredibly cheap beers, cards and plenty of laughs as we all went in different directions the following day. Tanya and I caught a flight to Hong Kong, sorry to be leaving the other 3 behind after a great few weeks of travel with awesome companions!


Daniel – Seeing Halong Bay was a fitting finale to South East Asia in terms of the amazing scenery. Vietnam has been an interesting country with much more of a scramble for the tourist dollar making it so difficult to do things by our self. Luckily having our little group always made the difficulty of getting out on our own worth it every time!

Tanya – Halong bay is an absolutely stunning place and we wanted to get amongst the islands for the best possible sunset and sunrise views which had to be from a boat surrounded by the beautiful scenery. Although the Vietnamese don’t seem to understand independent travel, we finally managed to break away and the car ferry across to cat ba island probably provided the best scenery of the bay without hundreds of tourist boats.

Posted by dbgomes 04:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam round_the_world Comments (3)

Vietnam – Hoi An

Shopaholics Anonymous

sunny 40 °C

Vietnams most picturesque city, Hoi An´s old town has kept its traditional buildings, small lanes and tailor shops. After coming through a few of the big cities, this change to a nice small more peaceful city was great. And to make things even better for the 3 girls, shopping is cheap and everywhere. Mateo and I on the other hand didn’t quite have the same enthusiasm for the shopping.

We had an overnight sleeper bus taking us up to Hoi An and as we were now in our group of 5, we were given the back row beds which was a cosy setup for the nights sleep. There ended up being people sleeping on the floor in the aisles and everything, so at least we had a bed each.


The streets are very nice to walk around and after having some breakfast down by the river, the girls stopped to look in a shop. Mateo and I said we would go and sort out our bus tickets for the following trips and meet the girls back at the hotel in 15 minutes. 2 and a half hours later we had had a snooze and showered by the time that it seemed the 3 girls had visited every shop in Hoi An and made a number of purchases of tailored dresses to be made over the next day or two.

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For the afternoon we once again hired some motorbikes with Tanya taking her own one this time. We headed out to the coast and north to a small set of rocky hills called the Marble Mountains. The ride out was nice, and the breeze on the motorbikes was a welcome relief from the heat! The Marble Mountains had a lot of Buddha images and temples that we took a while walking through and having a bit of fun here and there.

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We found out that Mateo is actually a ghost in the form of an Italian body

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The view from the Marble Mountains

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On the way back to Hoi An we stopped at the local beach which was jam packed with local people enjoying the balmy evening and slightly cooler water. We sat on a mat and ordered a round of drinks and played cards for a while as an awesome sunset played out before our eyes.


Back in Hoi An we walked around the streets as they were full of colour and light with all the shops showing their stock. It really is a beautiful little city Hoi An. We had some good food and drinks before retreating back to our air conditioned hotel rooms for some more cards and drinks


The following day the girls went to check on the progress of their recent purchases before we hired some pushbikes to ride around the old town with. We crossed the river and managed to keep at it for about 30minutes before the heat became too unbearable. From this part of Vietnam and further north, the weather isn’t wet and dry season, but rather a traditional northern hemisphere 4 seasons. So we were in the height of summer with 40 degree temperatures. Mateo and I called a day on the bike riding at that point and sought the comfort of ice cold beers for the sum total of 4000 dong each ($0.20) while the girls took the opportunity of not having us around to do some more shopping and hunting out the local markets. A win win situation really, apart from the budget of course.

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We cycled back out to the beach again to spend the afternoon before coming back into town and doing some more exploring under the cooler conditions of the night. The colonial architecture that has been preserved really does make it an enjoyable city to walk around and get photos.

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We had an early morning bus pick us up from our hotel and take us a few hours north to the city of Hue where we had another bus that night to Hanoi. We had about 5 hours to spare in Hue so walked over the river to the citadel that used to be the home of the emperor Nguyen. It wasn’t spectacular but gave us something to do for a few hours before the next bus journey

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Daniel – Probably the prettiest city we have seen in Asia since Pingyao in China. Still with old buildings and traditional shops, you have to stop here on any tour of Vietnam. Although watch out if you have female company with room to spare in their bags...

Tanya – The city had that oldie worldly charm and the countless tailors, shoemakers etc that made it even more special. Luckily with 20c beers, we could find room in the budget (plus room in my backpack) for a few additional purchases.

Posted by dbgomes 00:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam – Central Beaches

Flying kites and slippery slides

sunny 35 °C

Leaving Ho Chi Minh on a sleeper bus for the 6 hours or so up to Mui Ne, it was the same type that we had in China, with rows of forward facing seats come beds. We had booked our bus ticket as an open ended ticket all the way to Hanoi, so we just booked a bus as we wanted. We drove along the coast prior to arriving in Mui Ne and my first thoughts were, I hope I can do some kiteboarding.

Tan and I had booked a hotel that we saw online at a good price which also had a roof top pool. A little bit of luxury is always welcome when it only costs a dollar or two more. Mateo and Tuli booked themselves into a guesthouse near the beach a few places down from us. We all met up on the beach after getting checked in and as I had read, there are lots of kiting places along the beach but there wasn’t a single kite out on the beach given it is not the right season, and the midday wind was pitiful. I spoke to an English bloke who ran one of the schools and he said that as it was offseason, the wind is very unreliable and without the wind we can’t do anything. The best thing he could do was take a contact number for me and if the conditions are good the following day he will let me know. Ever since seeing the kiteboarders in Mancora in Peru I wanted to learn while on this trip as it would be cheaper than doing it back in Perth, but given the prognosis, I basically resigned myself to missing out.


For the afternoon we hired our favourite form of transport and rode to the outskirts of the city where there were some sand dunes to see. Tanya and I were hoping it would be something like we saw at Ica in Peru. The ride out was really nice as the road stuck close to the coast. When we got out to the dunes, they were not quite as impressive as we hoped, and it looked like they were being mined with big pits dug into them. We did find a spot that was not impacted from the activities and waited for the sun to set, but there were some ominous clouds to the west which obscured any colour in the sky.


On the way back into town, we stopped at some basic looking food places that served fresh seafood. It turned out to be a great move, as the seafood was fresh, big, tasty and best of all, dirt cheap! Normally it’s pretty difficult to get completely full on seafood given it usually comes in small quantities, but Tuli, Mateo and I shared a huge spread of seafood including scallops, clams, mussels, squid, prawns and cuttlefish that set us back a mere $7.50 each. The same spread in Europe or Australia would have easily broke $25 each! The heavens opened just in time for our ride back to the hotel and by the time we get there we may have well swam back we were like drowned rats.


In the morning, I looked out the window of the hotel and there looked to be a bit of movement in the trees below, but I hadn’t heard anything from the kite school. Just as we were about to head out the door, a message came though that said it looks like we were on. Down at the beach, the bloke said that I must be the good luck charm as there hadn’t been any good wind for a week. I started off on the small learner kite that gets you used to flying the kite and holding it in position. The wind was not really strong but it was clean and cross onshore being perfect for learning. I went through the kite setup on the big kites and then got harnessed up to start flying the proper kites. I mastered the big kite on the beach which requires a balance between the power and steering to hold the kite in place with the gusting wind. Just as we went to get ready for moving into the water and body dragging, there was a noticeable drop in the wind and it changed direction as a big black storm cloud rolled over the horizon. That brought my afternoon of kiting to an end, but it certainly won’t be the last time as I will definitely finish off learning in Australia and add a kite and board to my shopping list for once I am employed again :-)

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It was time for another BBQ seafood feast (except Tanya with her allergy to seafood) at a nice restaurant near our hotel and the following morning Tan and I enjoyed the benefits of having a pool in the hotel before we got our bus North to Nha Trang


Getting into Nha Trang in the early evening we found a local guesthouse for our few days in town. We booked a tour visiting the Islands off the coast for the morning and went out for our third seafood banquet in as many days. This time even including some really good oysters along with everything else.

We were picked up from our guesthouse in the morning and arriving at the crazy boat port we had a funny feeling that this island tour was not going to be like we expected. There were countless amounts of boats all being filled up with big tour groups. We sat on the front row of our boat as it filled up and then the boat cranked its music to maximum volume and our guide for the day started to do a bit of a strip show on the bow of the boat!

Boatloads of waiting tourists

Our guides slightly disturbing pre-trip show.

With a full complement of passengers we pulled out from the docks but over half of the boat were Vietnamese on their weekend vacations. We got the usual speak about what we were going to do and all that before we arrived at the first island. We went for a swim to start off with. The boat had snorkels and masks but they were pretty average and the coral was less than impressive. For the next three hours we sat in the same spot first having our lunch, then joining up with 3 other boats to make a floating bar followed by singing, dancing and partying. From what we can gather this is what the Vietnamese like to do on their excursions as everyone from all 3 boats were really getting into it and having a great time. We are always up for a good time, but we had paid to come and see some islands and so far we had seen jack!

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We all had to get up and sing a song from our different countries, Mateo was a crowd pleaser.

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The floating barman who was also the drummer in the band


We finally moved onto the second island where we got off the boat and paid our $1 entry fee for a crowded little strip of sandy beach. We escaped that pretty quickly to have a walk up the hill above the beach.


We soon moved on while all the local tourists were enjoying their parasailing which had a very dodgy looking takeoff procedure from the beach above all the people swimming. The final island had an aquarium that the Lonely Planet said was alright, so we went in to see. It was ok, but i think you see better coral and fish just by going snorkelling down in Thailand and Indonesia than in the tanks here. We were soon back on the boat heading to the docks at the end of the days excursion feeling like we had seen very little of the islands that we wanted to see and much more Vietnamese partying. Ohh well, it was pretty funny at times!


We got ready to go out for some dinner when we got back and Mateo and Tuli discovered that someone had stolen some money from their bags during the day. It was clearly the cleaner and she had been smart about it as she only took 1 million dong and $10US ($60 equivalent all up) obviously hoping that they wouldn’t realise the money was missing until a few days time once they left Nha Trang. We didn’t get much help from the hotel or police when we confronted them so left it for the time being.

That morning Valentina (who we spent time with in Cambodia and Laos) had arrived into town so we had organised that the 5 or us would go to the water and amusement park over at Vinpearl Island. The idea of a water park in Vietnam sounds like it might be a little lame, but I had some friends tell me that it was actually a good day out. The ticket was US$25 each but that included the cable car ride over to the island and everything except food. We got to the line for the cable car at around 10:30, just half an hour after opening time. There was a pretty long line which didn’t bode well for the rides over on the island but it moved quickly enough.

See the excitement in our faces for a day at a water park!!

It turned out to be a really fun day as we all enjoyed being able to be big kids again. The water slides were actually pretty impressive, and for all of the morning it was really quiet and we never had to wait in line for a slide. We really enjoyed one of the slides where we went down in a big tube that sat all 5 of us going pretty fast, flinging us high up on the walls of the big slide. We had a break at lunch and rested on the beach before having a final blast through the water park in the afternoon before it shut around 5pm.

The Tsunami Slide was also a favourite for the day with single, double and triple tubes allowed


After leaving the water park we dried off while waiting in line for the toboggan. Certainly a lot of the Vietnamese tourists preferred the dry rides over the water rides as we experienced the pushing and shoving of the Asian queuing system. The ride was really fun though once we got on it. We had a go on most of the other rides as it got dark then we called it a day and got the cable car back over to the mainland for dinner.


The following morning we hired some more motorbikes and headed about 50kms out of town to a waterfall. We had hired 3 bikes between the 5 of us, but given Valentina was riding a bike for the first time, the crowded city streets were not the ideal place to learn. A slight fall later and we returned one of the bikes and headed out to the waterfalls Asian style with 3 on one bike and 2 on the other. The drive took us on some nice stretch of road by the coast before getting onto the craziness of the highway.

Our rather inappropriate USA helmets

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At the waterfall we walked up the rocks until we got to one of the many swimming spots in the river for a refreshing swim in the cool river water. We stayed there for a couple of hours swimming and exploring before heading back to the city. On the ride back we stopped in at a very small fishing village to try to find somewhere to eat. As it was not touristy at all we had to look pretty hard but finally found some traditional rice porridge bowls and roadside noodles.

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An interesting climb up the river

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Tuli’s meditation is so good that she can float on top of water

Monumental blowout!


We had another good meal this time at a Japanese sushi place before a rather late night with beers, pool and dancing.

The girls mean business when they get their pool gloves on.


In the morning we had a problem checking out of the hotel regarding the stolen money and trying to overcharge us for our rooms on top of it all. We left and the guy at the hotel then told us that he was going to phone the bus company and get them to steal our laptops from the bus that night!!! Needless to say that we all left bad reviews for this hotel on trip advisor!! If you are in Nha Trang, do yourself a favour and don’t stay at Thien Thanh Blue Sky Hotel.

Daniel – In months of travel where you go between temples, ruins, cities and hikes it was really good to just be able to go and have fun at Vinpearl and not worry about having to get out and see another sight! A fun few days with our little group of 5 amigos. Oh and the seafood... A-MAZ-ING

TanyaMot, hai, ba, YO! Well we learned one thing that we will take away from the ‘island’ tour – just say ‘1, 2, 3, cheers’ in Vietnamese and the locals will 'love you long time’.

Posted by dbgomes 09:36 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

The artist formerly known as Saigon

sunny 36 °C

It’s had a new name since 1975, but it’s also got a lot of modern history. Ho Chi Minh City also has about 10million people with a further 7 million motorbikes calling it home!! Trying to cross the road, it feels like all 7million are crossing that very intersection as you put your life on the line.

When we arrived into what was clearly the backpacker part of town, we got in contact with Mateo and Tuli who we did the Komodo Boat trip with in Indonesia. We had figured we would be in Vietnam around the same time as each other so we organised to meet up for dinner and drinks that night. We had a good catch up on what we had been up to for the last month and plenty of funny stories to hear. Our time for Vietnam is identical and had the same places in mind to visit so we decided that we may as well stick together as we work our way up the country!

The other two had a tour out to the Mekong Delta set for the following day so Tanya and I decided just to have a look around the city. We started off walking up to the reunification palace. Starting off as the palace for the French governors, it then turned into the palace for the presidents of the South Vietnamese governments following independence. During the Vietnam war, the Americans set up state of the art telecommunications and war rooms in the subterranean basement of the palace.


We were shown around on a free tour of the palace. The interesting thing about the palace is that it has been kept as it was when the North Vietnamese stormed the palace to bring an end to the Vietnam War in 1975. The stately palace rooms and underground control centre complete with war maps and communications equipment was interesting enough for the morning and it was the first time we picked up an anti-American sentiment with the way the guide spoke about the war. The gambling room was particularly 70´s looking which made us laugh.

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Proclaiming the spot where a bomb landed in the taking of Saigon


It was raining as we left and walked past the two tanks that crashed through the fence in 1975 to unify the country. Next destination was the War Remnants Museum. This used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes until Bill Clinton normalised relations with Vietnam. Although walking around the museum the old intent is still apparent. Tanya wasn’t too worried about going to the museum so she sat at a coffee shop while I went to visit.

There are tanks and aircraft that were left over from the war sitting outside, and the multi story museum in the middle. Now I didn’t actually know much about the political situation of Vietnam War so I found it really informative. Although you need to realise that what you are reading needs to be taken with a little pinch of salt. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. For example, one part of the museum is reconstructed into the prisons of South Vietnam before the war for holding suspected communist North Vietnamese. The signs when you walk in this part highlight that the torture methods were carried out by the South Vietnamese but also make sure to continually remind the reader that it was while the American government was supporting the South. There is no doubting that this kind of inhumane treatment should never happen, but maybe I’m cynical to think that the North Vietnamese prisons wouldn’t have been holiday homes for the South Vietnamese prisoners that they took.


In case you are also from generations post the Vietnam War and need a little history update, Vietnam first gained independence from being a French colony in 1954. At this point communism and democracy set up in the North and South with the American government fearing the spread of communism they supported the south leading many to view the South Vietnamese government as just a puppet government for America. A gurilla force known as the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Viet Cong) started to attack the south attempting to Liberate the South to join the North. As the South started losing through poor government and military against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, the US got deeper and deeper involved with full scale war until public and diplomatic opinion turned so much that the US withdrew leaving the South Vietnamese army to be overrun by the North.

One thing that the museum gives a lot of information about is the use of chemical warfare by the US during the war. Another thing that I wasn’t really aware of, but the extensive use of Agent Orange devastated the country. The chemicals in Agent orange are some of the strongest known to man and when these chemicals were spread all over the country it turned the lush countryside into barren wasteland so that the US could cut the supply lines all over the country. The worst part of the chemical agent is the lasting effects that it has had. Genetic deformities have been spread into the Vietnamese generations and even US military personnel. A big law suit was won by servicemen who spread Agent Orange but as a letter says in the museum, How can the man who dropped Agent Orange from his feet be compensated, while the millions of Vietnamese who had it rain on their heads be given no recognition. I certainly felt that using chemical warfare against what was in many ways just guerrilla armies was way over the top and warranted the international condemnation that it received then and still now!

‘To the people of United Vietnam, I was wrong, I am sorry’


So after a slightly propagandist education lesson, I met back with Tanya and went back to the guesthouse via a walk through the park. Lots of people were out for the afternoon plying badminton, throwing balls and kicking around the shuttlecock type thing that we saw lots of in China. Vietnam definitely has more of a Chinese feel about it compared to the rest of South East Asia with the people, food and mannerisms being similar to their Northern cousins.


Later on we met up with Tuli and Mateo again ready to have some cheap Beer Hoi (street beer from as little as 15 cents per beer) before the European Cup Final between Italy and Spain that night. Being Italians, they both couldn’t miss it and i will usually take any excuse to stay up till 4am to watch a football match. We met a Danish bloke to share the beer hoi with and then went onto a bar to watch the game. Unfortunately the game wasn’t such a good result for our Italian friends and Mateo couldn’t even mention football for a few days to follow

Full of hope and expectation through the National Anthem

In the morning we made a trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels. This was a vast network of tunnels that the VietCong used to fight against the US Army for years. After a 4am finish for the football, an 8am wakeup was hard, but at least the bus trip to the tunnels gave us another hour to catch up. Now I need to point out that I know that I have claustrophobic tendencies. Ever since I saw the movie Aliens when I was young, the part where Bishop crawls through the air vent to the relay station gave me nightmares of being stuck in that pipe, not the Aliens! So I was not so sure if i could get myself down into the tunnels. Only one way to find out!

The tourist area is part of what was a massive complex of tunnels that stretched 120kms to the Cambodian border allowing the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to plan their offensive around Saigon. We were first shown around the above ground areas of the tunnels where the escape hatches were hidden, air vents disguised as termite mounds and some traps hidden. The overriding thing that came through was how incredibly resourceful and smart the Vietnamese were. Wearing their shoes backwards so that the enemy couldn’t work out where they were going, to putting chilli powder round the air vent holes to cover the scent from the army dogs. At the escape hatch we had the opportunity to hop in the hidden hole for a photo. I took the chance to overcome any irrational fears

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An example booby trap complete with poisoned bamboo spikes

An original unwidened tunnel


A stop at the firing range where plenty of people had paid to shoot Vietnam War era weapons made us realise how much louder a gun battle is in real life compared to what you see in movies when people hold audible conversations with each other. We were then shown how rice paper was made before being taken down to crawl through 100meters of westernised (widened for us plumper westerners) tunnels. At this point all I wanted was to make sure I was the first person through so that I wasn’t boxed in by anyone which would have freaked me out I think. There were exits every 20 meters just in case, but I managed to make it to the end following the guide. Tan, and Mateo crawled through the last 20meters and Tuli could only bring herself to get into the doorway for a photo. I could completely sympathise with her!

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At the end of 100 meters I was sweating crazily from the humidity down in the tunnels. I was relieved to stand upright coming out the other side and 5 minutes was enough time for me down there. How the Vietnamese managed to live in the tunnels for years rarely coming above the surface is amazing! Even though the tunnels are wider than original, for us, it was an incredible way to experience life in the tunnels.


We headed back to the city and had an early night ready for a morning pickup to take us to the beaches further up the coast.

Daniel – I think I may have slightly overcome any fear of enclosed spaces. Only slightly though!!!

Tanya – An introduction to the Vietnamese tourist conveyor belt. The tunnels were very well done and made a great day out despite the shopping trip on the way and the charges you don’t usually see. If youre going to go, don’t pay the guide on the bus, demand to pay at the entrance and only pay for what you want (the tea at the end costs 30,000 VND) and we didn’t even get to see the full video, just the last 2 minutes which also cost 20,000 VND. Regardless, the tour was very very good.

Posted by dbgomes 11:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam round_the_world Comments (0)

Cambodia – Sihanoukville

Playing Robinson Crusoe

storm 31 °C

Ahh, the beach again. Circling up through the highlands for the last few weeks has made us miss the relief that the sea can give you from the hot and humid weather! Sihanoukville is the premier beachside destination in Cambodia, although premier for Cambodia is very low key compared to Thailand and the destinations that most westerners are familiar with.

A relatively short bus ride of 6 hours or so got us into town and to a cheap guesthouse. $6 per night for a room for 2 people, that’s what i call value! We went out for a walk down the beachside and immediately bumped into Bastiaan and Eveline so sat down for a beer at one of the hundreds of beachside restaurants to enjoy some of the $0.50 beers. While we were there Valentina also joined us. We ended up having some really good BBQ food for dinner and more drinks for a few hours.


After spending a day just relaxing and enjoying the seaside, we booked for a night out at Kaoh Ta Kiev. We got picked up from our guesthouse in the morning and were taken for a 45min ride along the coast where a boat met us on a beach. There was one American girl who was also coming out for a few nights. The owner of the ‘Ten103 resort’ on the island had come from town with us so explained the setup out on the island. No electricity, just a few simple tree houses, hammocks, beach and water. Sounded perfect!

The sea was a bit rough today which is why we hadn’t caught a boat all the way from Sihanoukville, but it also meant that we couldn’t take the boat back to the resort. Instead we stopped in a calmer bay and then walked through the jungle and scrubland for a couple of kilometres. When we got to ‘Ten103’ it was as we were promised, very basic but perfect. Rustic seats and hammocks perfect for a few hours reading books while looking out to the other islands.

We bring the ice with us to the island


We decided to go out and explore our deserted island for the afternoon. We walked along the beach and was followed by the crazy puppy from Ten103. We found a nice bit of beach for a swim before heading back. The typical late afternoon thunderstorm came through and we took shelter in the ‘restaurant’ and had our dinner. When we read up about this place, lots of people said about the good food. It was true, despite being expensive (he has to get the stuff here and has not fridge or electricity to store stuff) and not having all the usual amenities, the owner cooked up some nice dinner for us and we even had fruit and chocolate fondue for desert! That’s the kind of island I’m sure Tom Hanks and Wilson would have liked to be washed up on.


We slept in hammocks which reminded us of a few experiences in South America, although it was a shame that the rain came through, because if it was looking like a clear night, we would have been able to string the hammocks up on the beach. We got the boat back the following morning. We could have maybe spent another night out there, but we were quite fortunate as heavy rain started while we were in the tuk tuk back to town and the rain stayed around all day long.


We headed back up to Phnom Penh after one more night in Sihnoukville where we picked up our passports complete with a new India visa in them. We saw a couple of interesting motorbikes driving around. They really are the vehicles for all occasions!

Five on a bike... A new record for us

Swine moto

Daniel – Deserted tropical islands, not a bad way to spend a few days while you wait for a visa to be processed!

Tanya – The rain held out long enough for us to get in some beach time and the island just topped it off. In this heat and humidity I had desperately missed the sea while we were exploring inland SE Asia!

Posted by dbgomes 10:35 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia round_the_world Comments (0)

Cambodia – Phnom Penh

Capital of unbelievable suffering

For 3 years and 8 months from 17th April 1975, Cambodia went through the most radical social reformation known when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge swept to power following years of civil war. Within days, Phnom Penh was a ghost town as everyone was taken to the countryside and forced to work the land. In those years unimaginable things occurred. Despite the terrible past, most Cambodians are the friendliest people you can meet with big smiles welcoming you. Phnom Penh is back to a bustling city now but there are places still here to remember what the Cambodians have been through to make sure it can never happen again.

Our bus ride from Siam Reap was fun as we played eye spy with a family of 5 from Victoria Australia. The 3 young boys were doing their homework and chatting with us about their trip and the funny things that they had seen. We shared a tuk tuk when we got to Phnom Penh and looked after their bags while they went to find somewhere to stay.

We had a relaxing first day in town as we recovered from the early morning and late nights of the last few days. We walked the streets around our guesthouse which was right near the riverside area and watched people go about their business.

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The following day was dedicated to visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek (commonly known as The Killing Fields).

Pol Pot studied in Paris when he was young and developed his extreme Marxist ideas while there. He came back to Cambodia and led his party, The Khmer Rouge, to power. His idea was that the cities were full of capitalist greed so everyone from the cities were rounded up and moved out to the countryside to make the country and agricultural state 100% self sufficient for everything. The people were fed a morsel of rice water not near enough to support their 12 hours or more hard work in rice fields. Many from the city had no idea of how to farm and were punished for slow or incorrect work.

As with most dictators with radical ideas Pol Pot began to go crazy with fear of revolt, outsiders and his plan not working. So the Khmer Rouge started to prison, torture and kill anyone that they thought were against the regime. Even being a professor, wearing glasses or having soft hands implied that you were educated and posed a threat! The massive irony here is that all the leaders of the Khmer Rouge had gone to Europe to study and become educated.

S-21 was the prison name for what used to be a school in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge came to power they closed down all schools, colleges and universities turning most of them into prisons, stables and warehouses saying that education was of no importance. The school is now a museum to make sure that the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge carried out there are never forgotten.

The rules of terror

It’s not the nicest of places to visit on a holiday, but like when we visited Auschwitz in Poland, we feel that it’s important to acknowledge these acts of the past where humans can be so cruel to each other. Hopefully we can then try to stop this ever happening again.

The school had 4 blocks and Block A was where interrogations and torture were carried out. The remains of 14 people were found in the block when the Vietnamese liberated the city and in those particular rooms, the bedframes and shackles remain, usually with a picture on the wall of the room when it was found. Incredibly hard to look at and comprehend the suffering that happened in these buildings, it certainly tests your spirit!


Block B houses a lot of the information of the museum with face shots of prisoners when they were first brought to the prison. The fear and terror in their eyes speak more words than anyone can write down. The information in the museum was very informative with lots of detail about the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and the process of moving everyone to the countryside. It also gives details of the processes used in the prison which are too horrendous for us to put down in words. In the 3 year 9 month rule, an estimated 2 million people from a population of 8 million were killed. Killing that many of your own people is a concept that most people would find hard to contemplate!


Block C has been left as it was found and shows the cramped cells that were used to keep the prisoners. Wooden and brick cells no more than 1 meter by 2 meters were the ‘living’ quarters that each were afforded. The most striking thing that you first notice though is the barbed wire that enclosed the whole block making it impossible for the prisoners to throw themselves off the higher floors to end their misery.


There was some interesting information in the rest of the buildings with details of the international victims at the prison, including an Australian bloke from Perth which I was surprised to read about. There were also stories from the 7 survivors of the prison. A few stories of the survivor were similar in that they were picked up for some unbeknown reason while working in the countryside, endured suffering and at some point the guards found out that they were painters and were asked to paint pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders. They only then survived and had their conditions improve because the higher officers were happy with their work.

There was also some more information on the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Something I wasn’t aware of was that these leaders are only just now being tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. They were removed from power in 1979, and are only just being brought to account for their actions from 2011!!!! Madness!!! Also they all seem to have a Cambodian lawyer defending them, but always have one or two other lawyers from America or Europe defending them. Honestly, I don’t know how someone could do this job. Sure you might be able to get them off or reduce their sentence due to some technicality, but you are defending the worst of the worst crimes possible!

So while that ended a mentally tough morning at the museum, it gave us a lot more appreciation of something that we knew little about before coming to Cambodia. The afternoon was no less harrowing though as we headed further out of the city to Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek is a mass grave of victims, many of whom were firstly prisoners back at S21. In a bit of countryside out of earshot from nearby villages, the killing fields now house a memorial for the many who found their end there. There was a very good free audio guide that took us around the site and was really informative about the Khmer Rouge and history of the time. One fact that the audioguide gave us which we found amazing was that when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese liberators, the western world didn’t recognise the new government as the legitimate rulers. Therefore the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia at the UN until 1993!!!

The estimations put the number of people killed and buried here at 17,000 (including many women and children). Bullets were expensive, so barbaric means were used and the people buried in the mass graves under the cover of darkness, noise and chemicals to hide the activities going on here. Since the fall of power, the annual monsoon rains have caused the graves to show as big depressions in the ground. Following the path around the mass graves was naturally a very sombre experience even though the site feels very peaceful now.


One of the most obvious reminders of the victims that you get while you walk around the site is actually right at your feet. Over time with heavy rains, the things that are in the ground get pushed to the surface so as you walk along the paths there are countless amounts of cloth and rags that you notice sticking out of the soil as well as occasional teeth and bone remains. Every month or so, the caretakers of the site go around to collect and document the remains. By far this was the most striking memory that I left the site with!

Some of the graves have been excavated and the remains of 4000 people are now housed in the monument that stands in the middle of the site. While it may sound strange to display the remains of victims like this, it is important as this is the evidence that is being used to bring the people responsible to justice. This way, they will not have died in vain!

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We headed back to the guesthouse reflecting on the tough day. The following day was Monday and we had our appointment at the India Embassy to submit our application for the visa. We got a midday bus down to the south coast to spend our time while our passports remained at the embassy for their 3 day processing time.

While maybe not as fun and upbeat as our other blog posts, I hope you managed to read this far. Phnom Penh has the tough history that makes you realise that humans are capable of doing terrible things to each other, but it now has the friendly smiles to show you that a soul of the people is even tougher

Daniel – There was one terrible slogan above all else that the Khmer Rouge had which sums up their atrocities.
‘Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake’

Tanya – A pretty tough history lesson!

Posted by dbgomes 09:33 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia round_the_world Comments (0)

Cambodia – Angkor Wat

Wat a Birthday!!

semi-overcast 36 °C

For 500 years up until the 1300’s the Angkor civilisation was ruling this part of the world. They consolidated this rule with building many temples in the ancient capital. The Angkor past is so deeply woven into the Cambodian peoples psyche that Angkor Wat is on their flag, on their money, on the beer and the biggest historical drawcard in all of South East Asia.

We first had to cross another border and had heard that this particular crossing between Laos and Cambodia was notorious for needing many bribes to get across. Because of hearing this we opted to pay someone to do it for us. Back in 4000 Islands there is a bus company who takes you all the way to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Before getting to the border we filled out our departure cards from Laos, arrival card for Cambodia and Visa on Arrival form for Cambodia. We paid the $23US visa fee, $6US stamping fee, $2US no photo fee (Tanya didn’t have any photos so instead of making you get one, you just pay a penalty). When we got to the border, the bus guide took all our paperwork to the offices and we just got to sit on the bus and not have any hassles. The fee for having this done for us was a single $1US each. Easy!!

Some of the other people on the bus hopped off and did the whole thing by themselves. When they got back on the bus they all seemed to have paid more than us. Through paying ‘admin fees’, not having change and paying for the forms we definitely thought the $1 we paid was worth the easy crossing.

After that the bus ride was long but with headphones and some tunes on, we watched the Cambodian countryside slowly pass by. We actually decided to stop into Phnom Penh for a night to try and get our India visa sorted as we needed that still. Unfortunately when we arrived at the India embassy, we were told that you have to do an online application and then receive an interview date to submit the application. With no option to do it then and there, we cut our losses and headed up to Siem Reap.

Paul had stayed with us for the night in Phnom Penh too and the guesthouse there had got us a good rate at a place in Siem Reap. It had a pool too which was a welcome luxury in the heat. All for $8 per night for the room. When we got into town we organised with Niels and Valentina to meet up for dinner. We went to ‘Pub Street’ which as the name suggests is completely overrun with westerners but Siem Ream has been a big travel destination for long time so it comes with the popularity. Dinner was great as we also met Bastiaan and Eveline over a nice Cambodian BBQ of crocodile, snake, frogs, shrimps and beef. It was a BBQ where you cook your meat yourself on a stove contraption on the table. Most of us went for the BBQ option which was a 2 person share deal so the table was full of sizzling BBQs and broths.

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Are these frogs on steroids???

We didn’t stay out too long, as the following morning it was a 4:30am wakeup for our tuk tuk to take us out to the temples for sunrise over Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is about 20minutes away from the temples so when we arrived at Angkor the sky was just starting to show a bit of light on the horizon. Buying a $1 coffee secured us a mat to sit on by the lake and we enjoyed the temple slowly revealing itself to us.


Today was also Tanya’s birthday, so we had timed it perfect for a good way to spend her birthday, even with an early wakeup. There was a lot of cloud unfortunately so we didn’t get much colour in the sky. It was worth the early start though to have our first impressions of the Angkor Wat like this.

The crowds had gathered – you don’t get this place to yourself, even at 5am


Angkor Wat is just one temple that sits in the ancient city so Paul, Tan and I had hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to take us around the massive site that has lots more temples than just Angkor Wat. As the crowds were still relatively small, we decided to head to Ta Prohm as this was going to be the most popular site that we would visit for the day. This temple is commonly called the Tomb Raider temple as Lara Croft was here in the form of Angelina Jolie when they filmed the tomb raider movie here. All the other temples in Angkor have been restored and conserved, but the curators decided to keep Ta Prohm in as authentic state as possible to show what the whole of Angkor was like when it was discovered by early western travellers.

That there is the reason why we probably enjoyed Ta Prohm the most out of everything we saw in our time at Angkor. There was not another person in the temple when we first got there and so we could just walk around in between the giant strangler figs and silk-cotton trees that make the stones of the temples their home. It really feels like you are stumbling across the place for the first time. We could crawl through little gaps in stones and just explore. The trees and temple are woven into one amazing picture!

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Notice the dinosaur... How did they know about dinosaurs?


Next stop was Ta Keo. After Ta Prohm this one didn’t seem that great, although it was interesting to note in the guide book that it said that this pyramid temple was never completed. As is the case with lots of temples over the world, every time a new king or ruler comes to power they start with building their own temple to be a lasting memory of them. If one of them only lasts a short time, the next ruler doesn’t have any problem stopping work on the predecessor’s temple and starting his own.

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After an early start, we decided to do one more temple and then call it a day. This time it was Banteay Kdei which was quite a long complex of temples and halls. The tuk tuk dropped us at one end and we walked all the way through and met him at the other side. There were lots of images in the walls and columns here. It was pretty quiet so we started to get a few photos of us in different ways than just the usual ‘stood in front of something’ pose.

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We bumped into everyone from the restaurant again so organised to meet up in town later to have a few drinks and dinner for Tanya’s birthday then went back to our guesthouse for a few hours sleep so that we could stay awake later on.

Out at Pub Street we met up with everyone and had another good dinner and cheap drinks. One good thing that lots of tourists does is it usually pushes up the quality of the food as everyone fights for the tourist dollar. After dinner we were feeling the effect of the early morning, but managed to party the night away with Niels, Paul and Valentina in the few pubs down Pub Street.


The temples of Angkor are far too extensive to cover off in 1 day, so we had planned to visit for a second day to see the bigger Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. We wanted to head out around 10am, but hangover s and a sluggish start meant we headed off after midday. It was really warm when we got out to Angkor Thom but it didn’t stop us enjoying the Bayon temple. This was built for King Jayavarman VII and has 216 faces in the spires of the temple.

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We walked a bit further up the road and to the Baphuon temple which is on a big mound of earth. There were some pictures showing what condition it was in back in the 1970’s. It hardly resembled what it is like now in its reconstructed form.

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The heat was getting a bit much so we walked through the shade of the elephant terrace and stopped for a drink and some lunch before heading over to Angkor Wat to finish off the day.

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Leaving Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat is definitely impressive with the whole site of the temple and outer walls surrounded by a large moat. The temple was lit up nicely in the afternoon sun and we wandered around just taking in ‘The 8th Wonder of the World’.

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That was it for the temples for us, we could have used our free 3rd day entry and seen more of the many temples are in the area, but we had a visa appointment at the India embassy on the Monday so had to make it back to Phnom Penh for that. What we had seen over two days had impressed us from the smaller temples right up to the big finale at Angkor Wat.

Daniel – You can’t come to South East Asia without visiting Angkor. Everyone knows that Europeans have rich history in their buildings, but at the same time that European churches and palaces were being built, there was just as much going on in this part of the world.

Tanya – We have seen so many temples, wats etc but none the less, the temples at Angkor Wat were incredibly impressive. It was difficult walking around in the midday heat, the complex is huge but a very rewarding excursion.

Posted by dbgomes 02:52 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia round_the_world Comments (1)

Laos – 4000 Islands

One, Two, Three...... ok we take your word for it.

storm 28 °C

The island of Don Det was our intended destination amongst the other 3999 islands that sit in this part of the Mekong river. The journey from Thakhek was on a sleeper bus but what welcomed us at the bus station at 11pm was more of a freight bus than a passenger bus. It seemed like there were a few tonnes of goods being transported where humans should have been. The back of the bus was filled with a jumble of boxes and the aisle was completely full with more boxes and everyone’s bags. On the roof of the bus was a scooter, some whitegoods and more unidentifiable boxes.


Somehow we slept in between stops whereby the bus lights would come on and a bunch of the goods would be unloaded, many times requiring us to pass down a box or two from the back. James and Ruben left the bus a couple of hours before the end of the journey as they were heading somewhere else. At around 5am Tanya, Stevie, Paul, Niels and I were woken up as we pulled into Pakse. There was transport waiting at the bus station that was going over to the islands, but it left at 7am, so we packed our bags on it and then waited around. The journey to the Islands was going to be 3 hours so we expected a proper bus. Nope, just a big truck like tuk tuk for 3 hours!

It held around 20 people and we were at capacity when we left the bus station. Two and a half hours passed without any problems but then we heard a distinct metal on metal clash and it ground to a halt. We all got out to stretch our legs as the front seats were removed and the driver got to work trying to fix the problem. As we were waiting, we got out a ball and threw it around with one of the kids and entertained a younger one with a few games. We ended up waiting for an hour before another tuk tuk bus passed. We were told to hop on this one, but the problem was it was also at capacity itself. Never fear, this is Asia, nothing is ever at capacity! We ended up having 10 of us hanging from the back and everyone else squeezed inside.


We got to the end of the road and then hopped into a longboat for a quick ride over to Don Det. There were lots of islands around which obviously give the place its Western name of 4000 islands. We found a guesthouse right where the boat dropped us and after a quick shower we headed out for some food and some wifi. Afterwards we rented some bikes from our guesthouse to go for a ride over to one of the other islands to try and see some of the freshwater dolphins that are in the area. These bikes hardly had any brakes and wouldn’t have seen a drop of oil in their lives, but luckily the track was flat. Within a few minutes cycling through the town we bumped into Chris, Valentina, Claude, Freddie and Corinne from Konglor cave. They had been for the bike ride already and said that it was a fair distance away. We agreed to meet up for some drinks later and continued on. 2 minutes later Niels had a flat tyre! It was the motorbike ride all over again.

We decided to stop at the bridge between the two islands and meet Niels there while he went back to change bikes. We had a cheeky beverage and continued on again when he was back. Down at the end of the road we looked but didn’t see any of the river dolphins playing around in the water, there is only a group of 20 of them, so not surprising I guess. We headed back and got to the bridge again and decided to get some food there. It meant that we would be riding back to town in the dark, but we figured that would bring back some more fond memories from our motorbike loop. All that we had for a light was our mobile phones and we ended up back in town without any mishaps.


We met the others and ended up having a really drunken night until being kicked out of the bar after closing time. It turned out to be a great night with lots of laughs over a fair few BeerLaos

The boxing kangaroos

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The next day it lashed down rain all day, which was lucky as none of us had the energy to do anything anyway. Instead we recovered from the big night with greasy food and movies paying at one of the pubs. We had an afternoon sleep before staying up late to support Holland for Niels in the 1.45am kickoff in the last group game of Euro 2012. It started well but then went downhill from there.

These kids all know how to use an iphone

We got an early morning boat the following day to take us all to the Cambodian border.

Daniel – To be honest, there isn’t much to do in the 4000 islands. But if you are crossing to Cambodia by land, it makes a good enough stop off point for a day or two to break up the journey. Thankfully we were here with a good crew to make it memorable!

Tanya – Our little bike ride a great start to our enjoyment on the island, shame about the rain on the last day, but glad it held off till now.

Posted by dbgomes 00:15 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (0)

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