02.01.2016 - 04.01.2016
Land of Smiles
on carpentrek's travel map.
Saturday Jan. 2: We departed Siem Reap bright and early for possible our most grueling travel day yet; the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok came in at a close second. We boarded our bus to Koh Chang at 8 a.m. and spent the next 12 hours on the barely air conditioned vehicle making far too many stops at markets. We were encouraged to "stretch our legs" but really they just wanted to sell us things. We stopped at least every hour and half, and at one stop a woman working at the market actually boarded our bus and insisted that we were required to get off and peruse her market at the demand of our driver. No one budged. We eventually became worried that we wouldn't make it to Trat in time for the last ferry to Koh Chang, but alas, we did. We arrived on the beautiful Island of Koh Chang around 8:30 p.m. and caught a ride from the port to our quaint little ocean side bungalow. We booked this bungalow through Air BnB, and our host, Stephane, waited up for us and kept their small restaurant open awaiting our arrival. We struggled through some of the spiciest curry we've encountered yet and went to bed eagerly awaiting a view of the island in daylight.
Sunday Jan. 3: Koh Chang ("Elephant Island" in Thai) is a mountainous island on the Gulf of Thailand's eastern seaboard, near the border of Cambodia. Its name comes from the shape of the island, and not from the presence of any indigenous elephants. It is part of Mu Ko Chang National Park, a protected area which covers the large majority of the island, therefore development is limited to the thin strip of rocky beaches along the west coast where tourism is booming. Although we hear it has become considerably more busy over the last decade, Koh Chang is still much more laid back than the more well known beaches of Thailand, i.e., Phuket and Koh Samui.
We spent our Sunday exploring Lonely Beach, a sandy beach on the southwest coast known for being a backpacker favorite. It was surprisingly uncrowded, and we enjoyed relaxing in the sand and swimming in the calm crystal clear bay. We found a great restaurant deck to view the sunset, which was absolutely stunning. It was a perfect, laid back Sunday following our hectic travel the day before.
Monday Jan. 4: Today we booked a snorkeling tour to visit four smaller islands close to Koh Chang. We spent much of the day cruising from island to island on a large boat that was a highlight of the trip in itself. We snorkeled around the diverse coral reefs seeing hundreds of sea urchins, and thousands of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors, including (we think) a species of parrotfish, lunar and cleaner wrasse, honeycomb grouper, and eight-striped butterfly fish.
We didn't have an underwater camera on us, so here are some google photos we snagged for reference:
We were dropped off at a new bungalow with direct access to a remote sandy beach. We'll spend our last two nights on Koh Chang here, before departing on one final bus trip back to Bangkok.
When we started this journey three weeks ago we weren't even sure which country we would be celebrating the new year in, or if it would even be widely celebrated in this part of the world. We considered Bangkok, knowing there would be a celebration – which we assume would have just been nuts – or an island, but it worked out that we would have our countdown in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We weren't sure what to expect, but soon after arriving in town last week realized this town does not lack in a party scene. In the center of town is a block with several alleys called "Pub Street" that is filled with restaurants, shops and street vendors. This has been our hub nearly every night as it's only a short tuk-tuk ride from our hotel and a great place to wander around for dinner and shopping.
We knew from advertisements that Pub Street would be in full-swing on New Year's Eve, but started our evening at the "Phare" Cambodia Circus a few kilometers away. This small big top runs a nightly show full of interpretive dance, acrobatics and gymnastics. Think Cirque du Soleil on a much smaller scale and without the flashy costumes. Phare is a great program that offers free education in theater and performing arts to impoverished children in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and give them a chance at a life off the streets. We've seen more children selling and begging on the streets here than we care to talk about. It's a real problem, and it's comforting to know that there are people trying to help. We lucked out with great seats, and thoroughly enjoyed the show.
We got a lift back to Pub Street and found a spot up on the balcony of a restaurant to watch the crowd. We could tell that there was a lot of energy at the far end of the main drag out in front of a place called Sky Lounge. After deciding we didn't want to spend 2+ hours sharing a seat where we were at, we ventured out into the madness and headed towards Sky Lounge in the hopes of reaching its roof top bar. Along the way we realized that people were throwing water, beer, and mixed drinks, as well as handfuls of baby powder, over everyone and everything. The ground level of the lounge was an absolute disaster! We couldn't get anywhere near the stairs and quickly retreated back in the direction from where we came. We settled back down at the Red Piano and eventually watched the countdown from the center of Pub Street. We finished the night at X Bar, a nearby three story place with a halfpipe on the rooftop (no one was skating though) and caught the last few songs of a Cambodian punk band's set.
Cambodia has been a blast, and tomorrow we head to Koh Chang, an island off the coast of Thailand for the last leg of our adventure. 2015 was a big year for us, and here's to another year filled with happiness. Happy New Year!!
When construction of The Temples of Angkor - one of the largest known religious complex in the world - began in the ninth century, only a few probably would have predicted its ability to draw millions of people from all over the globe to visit its labyrinths and towers every year. The archaeological park is famous for Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (the set of "Tomb Raider"), but offers so much beyond that. The main hub of temples lies just 8 kilometers north of Siem Reap, about a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride, which was our chosen mode of transportation. We hired our driver (who we think was named 'Mop') to also drive us from temple to temple as they are much too spread out to walk. For a true archaeologist, I'd imagine you could spend weeks exploring each and every ruin, but for the curious traveler, two days were enough for us. We visited a total of seven temples, a couple of them more than once, and gathered the best photos below:
Banteay Kdei: The first temple of our first day.
Ta Prohm: This famous "jungle temple" is definitely a highlight, but the crowds were a bit overwhelming. We had attempted to plan our day in a way that would avoid the hoards of noisy tour groups, but it seems there is just no way around having a lot of company at this location. It was none the less amazing to see the massive trees taking over the ruins in person, and we were lukcily able to return two days later at sunset for a very brief visit when only a handful of people were there.
Ta Keo: One of our favorites! We really enjoyed climbing the steep and narrow stairs to the top of the temple. Not recommended for those afraid of heights!
Chao Say Tevoda & Thommanom: Two smaller temples situated across the street from one another, and just outside the gate to Angkor Thom.
Bantey Srei: A small temple 20km north of the main Angkor complex. It is known for its intricate carvings which did not disappoint. While we were out in the countryside, we also visited the nearby Landmine Museum.
Bayon: The central temple within the great walls of Angkor Thom, which was the largest city of the Angkor Era. Bayon was our agreed upon favorite, and we visited it on both of our days to Angkor.
Angkor Wat: The be-all, end-all of temples. We visited this one twice as well. Once in the late afternoon when we explored the inside and climbed to the top of central temple which offered amazing views, and again for sunrise -- a must see!
Friday (12/25) We caught the 8 am bus direct from Bangkok to Siem Reap on Christmas morning. This wasn't exactly how we imagined spending Christmas this year but at least we were together. We had read that the border crossing wasn't the easiest and this way we didn't have to try and find another ride on the Cambodian side to finish out the trip.
We booked the first class bus with A/C and it got us to where we needed to go. If there even is such a thing as a 2nd class bus over here, we advise to steer clear of it. For breakfast, they served us a can of coffee, a juice box, and what looked like an Asian Twinkie. Lunch was a microwaved rice and fish dish from the 7-11. No thank you! We had a digital copy of 'A Christmas Story' to watch on the laptop along the way, but it locked up about 5 minutes in.
Fast forward to the border. We got our visas stateside, so the first thing we needed to do was get stamped out of Thailand, which was no problem. Next, we walked through what is commonly referred to as "No Man's Land" - about a 1/4 mile strip between Aranyaprathet and Poipet where we assume there is no officially agreed upon demarcation separating the two countries. We were a little anxious about this but it ended up being pretty straight forward. It's full of small, dilapidated shops but also casinos. A strange place. The hardest part was waiting in line, luckily in the shade but still sweltering, to get our visas inspected on the Cambodian side.
We hopped back on the bus and about two hours later (8 total) we were in Siem Reap. We were told that we had a free shuttle to Hotel 20th Street, but as soon as we got off the bus we were bombarded with offers from tuk-tuk drivers. After some confusion, we were on a tuk-tuk, that was in fact free, and just a short ride away from our hotel, which is tucked away on a quiet dirt road not far for the city center. We walked to a nearby restaurant with rooftop seating and enjoyed a fabulous, if not traditional, Christmas dinner.
Saturday (12/19): The flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was a mere hour and forty minutes, which we spent napping and talking to the Vietnamese man next to us who was thrilled that out of anywhere in the world, we chose his home country to visit on vacation. We told him how excited we were to try the food, and gave each other mental high fives when he nodded and smiled at our correct pronunciation of their famed soup "pho" (look it up.. it's not how it appears.)
Going through customs was surprisingly quick and easy. After finding our driver, it was more comforting than you might think to once again get into a car that had the driver seat on the left side. This comfort did not last long, however, as we realized that the hectic streets in Thailand were just amateur hour. I'm not sure if there are actually any traffic laws, but if there are, they are not being enforced. After checking into our guesthouse in the Old Quarter, we wandered out on foot to find dinner and learned by watching the locals that to cross the street, you just casually walk into oncoming traffic and trust motorists to go around you. It sounds terrifying, but it works, and by the end of our time here we were used to it.
We will admit that overall, the weather (once again) was not what we expected. We didn't realize that despite the close geographic proximity to Thailand, Northern Vietnam has a completely different climate with four distinct seasons. We had anticipated sunny, hot and dry days, especially the ones spent at the beaches of Halong Bay, and what we got was pretty much the opposite. It was cool and cloudy every day, and rained most days, but luckily the rain never lasted long. That being said, our time here was still worth it and we enjoyed experiencing the new culture. Vietnam is a beautiful country, despite its winter clouds.
Sunday (12/20): We left this day open to explore Hanoi, and visited Ngoc Son Temple, which we reached by crossing a pedestrian bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake. Like in Thailand, the Vietnamese largely practice Buddhism, but their culture is heavily influenced by the Chinese and French, which can be easily seen in their architecture, decor, and religion. After spending some more time walking around town, we found a five story roof top bar with a scenic view of the lake and city. We watched the sunset here (this was pretty anti-climatic due to the clouds) and found another restaurant close to our guesthouse for dinner.
Monday (12/21): We were picked up from our guest house early in the morning to begin the 4 hour journey via bus to Halong Bay. This bay, studded with thousands (yes, thousands) of limestone cliff islands of all shapes and sizes, is the prized treasure of Northern Vietnam and we enjoyed listening to our guide sing its praises as he shared its history with us during the drive. We learned that in Vietnamese "ha long" translates literally to "descending dragon" and the legend goes that dragons once descended from the sky and created the limestone barriers in order to protect Vietnam from enemies of war.
After arriving at the bay, and boarding our cruise ship "The Silversea" we were served a delicious Vietnamese lunch as we cruised through the stunning limestone cliffs.
After lunch we took a smaller boat to an island that is home to "Paradise Cave" and walked through its massive caverns with our group and guide. He told us that there are many caves on the islands, but this is the only one open to the public. As with many parts of nature, human interference is detrimental for the natural ecosystem inside the caves, and we're glad they've chosen preservation over tourism for most. Of course the cave was beautiful, but possibly more stunning were the views from the entrance and exit which were accessed by platforms high in the air.
After returning to the ship we spent the evening cruising through the bay, taking photos, meeting other passengers and eventually docking for dinner followed by hours of karaoke. Karaoke is a huge deal in Vietnam, and I honestly think our host was offended when he put us on the spot in front of everyone to perform "Hotel California", which he picked out for us based on our nationality, and we declined. He, without delay, belted out some Vietnamese song to much applause.
Tuesday (12/22): This morning we visited a pearl farm, which we have mixed feelings about the ethics of but won't get into at this moment. We then boarded a smaller cruise boat and made the journey to Nam Cat Island, a tiny resort island off the coast of Halong Bay's largest and most populated island, Cat Ba. We visited a small beach side resort where we were free to explore on our own for a few hours. We decided to take out a kayak despite the fact that it was raining off and on, and a touch on the chilly side. Of course better weather would have been preferred, but we still enjoyed navigating through the limestone cliffs, and found an island with a small beach where we got out to explore and search for seashells.
Wednesday (12/23): This day mostly consisted of travel, but we really enjoyed our early morning boat ride when we unexpectedly passed through a floating fishing village in the bay. We didn't have a guide at the time since were being transported as the only tourists on a small boat of Nam Cat employees (long story) but it appeared to be a fully functioning village complete with a market, restaurant, and even dogs scampering around.
We arrived back in Hanoi that evening and attended a water-puppet show, one of Vietnam's claims to fame. We had all of our luggage with us, which they surprisingly allowed, and I'm sure people got a a good chuckle watching us attempt to squeeze ourselves and packs into the tiniest theater seats we've ever seen. The show only lasted about 45 minutes, so the uncomfortable seating was no big deal and worth it. Definitely a unique experience.
We treated ourselves to gelato while we waited for our ride to the oddly named "Family Transit" hotel where we would spend our last night in Hanoi before flying back to Bangkok and preparing for our Christmas day bus ride to Cambodia.