Posts Tagged ‘Saigon’

Temples of Angkor

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I am now travelling alone again. Annikken and I spent our last night together in Vietnam in the company of Karoline, Jake and Bryan at the GO2 in Saigon. I stayed in a cheap dormitory that night, and Bryan saw what it looked like when he followed me over to get money for the bus to Cambodia. They made fun of it the whole night, but when it came down to it, I slept like a baby. ๐Ÿ™‚
Early Monday morning I went to the guest house where our three new friends were staying, had breakfast with them, and got on the bus to Phnom Penh. Later the same day, Annikken got on a plane to go to Hong Kong, then London and finally Oslo, but I didn’t see her that day, as I left too early. This goes out to you Annikken: It was really nice to see you again, and to travel with you, even though I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time with anyone in go, ever. The more I think about it, the stranger I find it that we didn’t have more fights!

On the bus, one of the bus company guys collected all our passports, and filled out our Cambodian immigration forms for us. I was going to buy my visa on the border, and the bus guy said he’d fix it for me, the price was seventyfour dollars. I got worried, because I didn’t anticipate such a high price, and told him as much. He kept sticking to his price, but I just didn’t have that much dollars on me, so I couldn’t give it to him. When we got to the border, I fixed the visa myself, for 20 dollars, and it took about five minutes. This is the kind of behavior I’m getting tired of, you ALWAYS have to be worried about getting ripped off.

Before we got to Phnom Penh, we decided to keep going directly to Siem Reap, as the others were flying out of Phnom Penh later, anyway. We arrived there in the evening, really tired, but booked a trip to Angkor the next morning anyway.

The alarm went off at 4:45am on Tuesday, and we were off at 5, in our little Tuk-tuk. The one day ticket cost 20 dollars, and was printed with our photo on it, taken at the counter! Around 5:30 we reached Angkor Wat, the temple city, itself, and together with the crowd of tourists, we watched the sun rise over the thousand year old temple complex. We spent the next couple of hours exploring the huge temple, climbing stairs and photographing bas-reliefs and fascinating architectural details. The only disappointment was that the stairs to the upper level had been closed off, because they’re so steep, and some tourists have fallen down and hurt themselves.

At the end of it we met up at the tuk-tuk, and continued to Angkor Thom, the Great City. Angkor Thom was the capitol of the great Khmer empire, and the area housed about a million people around the turn of the last millennium! Much of it was swallowed by the jungle after the fall of the empire, and some claim that there are still undiscovered structures hidden in the dense growth, even though most of the sites are overrun by tourists. We were among them, as we entered through the South Gate of Angkor Thom, over a bridge where statues of men holding the bodies of two great seven-headed Nagas formed the balustrade on each side. Once inside, the jungle still grows, but is kept at a distance, so it more closely resembles a park. The second stop inside the walls, after breakfast, was the Bayon temple, with a stunning 54 towers, each adorned by a smiling face of Avalokiteshvara, in what they say is a great likeness to the face of the king who had it built, King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181-1219. Inside Angkor Thom is also the Baphuon, which was constructed by King Udayadityavarman II who ruled from 1049-65. In the 15th century parts of it was dismantled, and used to build a seventy meters long reclining Buddha, which is still part of the rear of the structure. We went to the Royal Palace with Phimeanakas, and to the Elephant terrace, where the kings would watch elephant races and acrobat shows and other entertainment. At the opposite side of the racing ground were big towers, between which long wires used to be fastened, for acrobats to “fly” through the air before the eyes of their audience. We had lunch before we left, and then headed out the east gate of Angkor Thom.

The first place we stopped at once outside, was Ta Keo, which is almost devoid of carvings. Lightning struck the temple before it was finished, and this was considered such a bad omen that construction was just left as it was, and to this day the place looks like it’s almost done, and is only lacking decoration.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm. This temple is the only one close to Siem Reap that is still partly overgrown, but even here the growth is kept down, and only the biggest trees with the largest roots are left standing. King Jayavarman VII, who also built Bayon, built this temple dedicated to his mother, and it contained massive treasures. Some of the many Sanskrit inscriptions apparently state that there used to be thousands of pearls and precious stones, and golden dishes weighing more than half a ton each! The one thing that the temple is most known for today, however, is that Angelina Jolie was here as Lara Croft for the filming of a couple of scenes for Tomb Raider… By the time we were done sneaking through dark galleries and climbing over roots and fallen pillars like Indiana Jones, it was getting late, and we headed over to Phnom Bakheng, a temple on top of a hill, where we watched the sunset before heading home for dinner. By the time we got back to our hotel, we’d been walking around for 14 hours, and my feet were sore in my new sneakers.

The last couple of days, I’ve been taking it easy, reading and relaxing. Jake, Bryan and Karol left for Phnom Penh on Wednesday, and went looking for a cheap hotel. I ended up in a place called Sakura Village, where I’m staying in a double room with aircon, my own bathroom, cable TV and minibar for 5 dollars per night. One of the things that are peculiar about Cambodia, is that the ATM machine only dispense US dollars… To change to Riel, the local currency, you need to go to street-side exchange operations or banks! The Riel is used instead of cents, so that one dollar divides into 4000 riel of small change, but price is almost always given in dollars. Across the street from where I stay, is a hotel called Soria Moria. Because of the name, a palace in the clouds from a Norwegian fairy tale, and because it had a Norwegian flag, and promised Scandinavian food, I went there Wednesday night. It was run by a couple from Sandefjord, and I spoke briefly with the wife. It was one dollar night, with tapas at a buck a piece, so I stayed a while, and sampled amongst other things the Swedish meat balls… They also had free Wifi, and when I got online, I found that there was to be a small Couchsurfers’ meeting that night, at a place called… Soria Moria! I kept hanging around, and eventually met up with a group of surfers. After dinner, three of us went to the Bar Street to play pool, and after several rounds eventually ended up playing Wii Sports in a bar until time came to head off to bed. ๐Ÿ™‚
Yesterday I sat in a garden restaurant reading all day, just enjoying life, and today I am meeting with a German guy Annikken and I met in Hoi An. First though, I am planning to go see if I can find this place that’s supposed to have some nice miniature landscapes, copies of the Angkor areas, and get some nice bird’s eye view photos. ๐Ÿ˜‰

PS: It’s REALLY IS a small world. On my last day in Vietnam, I walked into a restaurant to have an iced coffee, and I started talking to some of the other patrons. Two of them were Swedes, and the third was a Norwegian they’d met and travelled with for a couple of days. His name was Jostein, and he went to school with one of my best friends, Hallgeir…

Saigon – full circle

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

On Thursday Vietnam was celebrating a special day. It was the 35th anniversary of the Reunification, i.e. the end of the American War. We got on the bus in Hoi An at 6:30pm, and headed south. We spent a couple of hours on Friday morning in Nha Trang, from 6am to 8am, before continuing on to Saigon. As we stopped for lunch in Mui Ne, Gjerulf was the last person off the bus before it was locked, and Annikken was the first person back on after it was unlocked. In the mean time, someone had stolen her cell phone from the top of her day pack… We asked the bus drivers if they had let anyone in during the stop, but they didn’t understand the question. Eventually they called the office, to give us someone who spoke English, but even then all they could come up with was a shrug and a wagging of the right hand from side to side, which apparently means “Shit happens” or “Nothing we can do about it” or something of that sort.

We met some nice travellers on the second bus, who are living in Tokyo, teaching foreign languages; a German, Karoline,ย  teaching German, and two Americans, Bryan and Jake, teaching English… ๐Ÿ˜‰ Jake had his camera and ipod stolen from his bag on the previous bus, so someone was definately making some extra money on that trip.

We went out for dinner with the three teachers last night, along with a Canadian guy from the bus, a Japanese girl that the teachers had met earlier in Vietnam, who just happened to be there, a Japanese guy who had studied with the girl in Australia a couple of months ago, and who also just happened to be walking by, and last but not least a Scottish guy whom the Canadian had met elsewhere in Vietnam, and who ALSO just happened to be there… When you’re a backpacker, these things tend to occur. The night ended early, however, as most of us had just gotten off the bus after a 25 hour bus ride…

Today we met up with Bryan for breakfast, and Karoline a bit later, and then the four of us spent the day walking around Saigon, buying stuff at a local market, and we even managed a tour of the Reunification Palace. The tour was very interesting, and we learned a lot about Vietnam. For example, they had four presidents in South Vietnam during the war, one who was president for three years before he was killed, but managed to start the building of the palace we visited. The second president was in power for eight years, and lived in the palace. The third president lasted about a week, and the fourth president lasted all of 43 hours in office…

Tomorrow is the last night before Annikken gets on the plane to go home, so this will be our last blog post together. To all of you who have been following Annikken, hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you back home soon.

Gjerulf will continue to travel, and continue to write. He might head into Cambodia with the three teachers we met, on the same day as Annikken goes home, but we’ll see. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Hoi An again

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

A week ago we arrived in Hoi An for the second time, after a long journey on the bus from Ninh Binh. After checking in at a hotel around half the price of last time we were here, we rented bicycles and headed to the beach. The beach was where we spent the next four days, until sunset, or until we couldn’t take any more. ๐Ÿ™‚ The waves were awesome for body surfing, the palm trees provided shade to retreat into when the sun got too strong, we played frisbee in the surf, read books, bought fresh mangos and pineapples from the beach vendors and enjoyed the beach life, until Saturday night…

After a long day on the beach, we splurged on a splendid three course western meal at the Cargo Club Restaurant, accompanied by a nice wine. While we were eating, it started raining, and the weather’s been gray ever since. We stopped for a Tiger and pool at Before and Now on our way back to the hotel, where we met a couple of nice travellers. We were going to show them King Kong, but when we were getting our bicycles, Annikken’s right calf touched the muffler on a moped parked next to it, and she sustained a deep second degree burn. With a burn like that you can’t go in the water, so the gray weather has been a consolation; at least we haven’t missed any beach days because of the burn!

Annikken also had to return some tops she had made, because the first time she wore one of them, the seams started coming apart. The tailor took them back, and as a matter of course double stitched the seams on all the tops. A dress that was returned for refitting turned out to be more of a problem. She had three fittings before we left Hoi An last time, and the dress was still not ok, but we had to take it, as we were leaving. After we returned, she had seven more fittings, several arguments and much frustration on both her and the tailors’ sides, before the dress turned out the way it was ordered to begin with.

On Monday morning we had cooking classes at Friendship Restaurant, which makes Annikken’s favorite clay pots. We showed up at at 9:30 in theย  morning, and started out by going to the market to buy some sauces, vegetables and noodles. In the following hour and a half, we were taught how to make fresh spring rolls, Wonton and Chicken Claypot.

Last night we dined at Treat Restaurant, and spent the evening talking to a Canadian couple on their yearly three week holiday. They were extremely jealous of Annikken who could take two months off, and Gjerulf who’s travelling for a long time… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Tomorrow night we’re taking a 24 hour bus ride to HCMC, and on Monday Annikken is flying home to Oslo. She is really looking forward to cooking her own food, sleeping in her own bed, baking and meeting her friends again. She is NOT, however, looking forward to returning to a place with no tropical beaches, and temperatures below 30 degrees. Gjerulf on the other hand, is still not sure what to do after Monday, except that the plans WILL involve tropical beaches and temperatures over 30 degrees, but sadly no kitchen, dark bread or tasty, fresh, cold milk. ๐Ÿ˜›

VietCong’s Cu Chi Tunnels

Friday, March 27th, 2009

March 22

My plane was an hour late, but I got through immigration without problems. Annikken was waiting for me when I arrived, and we took a taxi with a Canadian woman to the backpacker area De Tham in Saigon (=Ho Chi Minh City=HCMC). We bargained for accomodation, and managed to get it down to eight dollars for a room for the both of us.

We tried to get a CS host in Saigon, but due to some misunderstandings and short notice, we’re spending our nights in Saigon in a hotel (read: room above an arts and crafts shop). The temperature down here is a scorching thirty five degrees centigrade, and we’re both having a bit of trouble adjusting to the climate. We’re travelling together for the next couple of months, so the coming weeks we’ll share this blog.

Yesterday was mainly spent resting and trying to recover from jet lag and sleep deprivation respectively, while both attempting to cope with the dramatic climate change. In the afternoon, however, we had a nice walk around down town Saigon. The parks were filled with teenagers and young adults playing games. The most prominent is kicking around things made of layered plates of plastic, with tails of feathers, as if they were hackeysacks. Another favorite pass time is apparently hiding from parents, making out on all the benches in the darker shadows in the park. A striking point to be made on the layout of the city, are the abrupt changes between different quarters. On our side of the park is the backpacker area, while the park was almost all Vietnamese youngsters. On the other side of the park we entered an area catering to well off Vietnamese professionals, and at the north end were all the luxury hotels. Amongst them is the New World Hotel Saigon, where Annikken will be spending her last well deserved night in Vietnam, drinking her long awaited champagne after backpacking for sixty days. Google it and and weep! ๐Ÿ˜€

We decided early to try to mostly eat traditional and local cuisine preferably outside of the typical tourists areas, dining where the vietnamese dined, from street vendors or similar. So yesterday at lunch we started our food adventure by buying baguettes from the street vendors, one with tofu and one with ham, filled with lots of vegetables and different kinds of tasty sauces, and for desert a big pineapple. Unsurprisingly this tasted fantastic and we will without a doubt try this again. For dinner however, Gjerulf decided to be a bit more adventurous and we sat down at a street barbeque and ordered a whole frog WITH skin as well as grilled pork to be a bit more on the safe side.

This morning we got up early and headed off to see the Cu Chi tunnels, for which the American War (that’s the Vietnam war to you Americans:)) is famous. On the way there we stopped to see a laquer-workshop run by vietnamese who were handicapped due to the military use of the chemical Agent Orange. The workmanship was fabulous, but being backpackers with weeks and months left to travel we couldn’t very well stock up on the awesome trinkets. At Cu Chi, the Vietnamese soldiers dug small tunnels under the ground, to stay hidden from American bombers and infantry. The tunnels were tight, with little oxygen and less light, but the construction was fantastic. The area was spiderwebbed with tunnels, so that if a bomb broke through the ground and destroyed some chambers or tunnels, there were always ways to circumvent the missing parts. On three levels, at 3, 7 and 9 meters under the surface, the lowest tunnels needed air shafts to supply oxygen. They were built by drilling bamboo pipes from the surface to the ground, and disguising the opening at the top as a termite mound! The tunnels were in places riddled with booby traps, to stop any unwelcome visitors, and deep fresh water wells to get drinking water. We were shown how they popped up of the hidden entrances, some of the ingeniously cruel traps, got to taste the food they ate (mainly tapioca) and had the opportunity to fire weapons from the period, like the AK47, M30 and others. Annikken had done it before, and Gjerulf is pasifist, so we skipped directly to the tunnel walk. The tunnels were widened and heightened to fit westerners, but it was still a pretty claustrophobic squeeze, running at a crouch through the pitch black heat. We were told the widened tunnels would feel to us as the originals feel to the Vietnamese. The small size of the tunnels was a great defense against American soldiers, who’d have no chance following into the tunnel system.

Tomorrow we’re off to Mui Ne, a five hour bus ride from HCMC. It’s a famous beach resort, and we’re looking forward to finally throwing ourselves into the turquoise water, and lie on the beach under a clear blue sky. The bus leaves at eight am, so Annikken is headed to bed, while Gjerulf goes out to see if he can meet some CS’ers for a little while.

Elephants, Rhinos and Crocodiles

Friday, March 27th, 2009

19. March
The medicine against my amoebas has not presented any side effects so far, for which I am very grateful! I had a pizza night with the teenagers at KICC on Saturday. 11 people had said they’d come for sure, 5 that they might show up. We were 25! It was a great evening, and I had six people say they’d like to organize the next Social! For this I am very grateful. The bandh in the Terai area ended on Sunday, and I got the opportunity to go to Chitwan National Park after all! For this I am immensely grateful! ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

On Monday I got up at 5am, to go take the bus. The bus left at 7am, and we arrived in time for lunch at around 1pm. After lunch, we walked around the village, looking at how the Theru people still live in a very traditional environment, albeit with some modern improvements (and drawbacks) to their lifestyles. The most obvious improvement was tin roofs on some of the houses, instead of the thatch, which leaks and needs changing very often. The most obvious drawback was the everpresent non-biodegradable garbage.

After dinner, there was a dance show, where a local group of men(!) danced traditional dances.

On Tuesday I got up early as well, at 6.30am, and immediately after breakfast, I headed off ride an elephant into the park proper to look for wild animals. We saw a couple of really big deer, but all in all it was a disappointingly devoid of life. Riding an elephant was awesome, but even more awesome was bathing with them! Wearing our bathing shorts, me and one of the French guys who were also doing the elephant ride at the same time got on an elephant without a saddle, and it walked into the river. The mahout (rider) got him to shake us off. When we were getting back on, we stood right in front of the elephant and stretched up. The elephent let his head down so we could grab his ears and stand on his trunk, and then he lifted us up on his back! ๐Ÿ˜€ When we were on his back, he continuously splashed us with water from his trunk, and eventually the mahout made him lie down on his side to be scrubbed. ๐Ÿ™‚ It seemed a bit brutal when the mahout slapped the animal with a stick when it didn’t pay attention, but apparently their hide is so thick that it’s the sound, not the pain, that gets their attention to the mahout’s shouted commands.

After the swimming there was lunch, and and after lunch I decided to take another elephant ride, this time in the so called Community Forests that surround the park. My guide told me that we were almost guaranteed to see rhinos there, because it was a rather small habitat, with a population of about 20 rhinos. In the north side of the park, the water holes were filled in with silt, by a flood 15 years ago. After that the rhinos migrated south to the other water holes, or north to the community forests. The water holes in the community forests were also destroyed by the flood, but since it’s not protected, the local community dug them out again. In the park, ironically, that’s not legal, and thus there is less wildlife… When we came to get an elephant (me and the guide, the French guys, who were the ones who had insisted on going to the park proper that morning, didn’t want to come) the elephants were all busy. We considered waiting, but the schedule for the day being rather packed, there was no time to wait, so we decided to go on foot.

Not long after entering the community forest, we smelled fresh rhino dung, saw tracks so fresh that water was still seeping into them, and trees with their lower trunks covered in mud where the rhinos had rubbed up against them. A few minutes after that, we found the first rhinoceros unicornis (one-horned rhino) in a clearing. There was an elephant nearby, that we had allied ourselves with for protection, and we called them over. We got closer and closer to the rhino, with the elephant between us and it. Soon we were less than ten meters away from this massive, wild rhino bull, when the mahout on the elephant says he’s spotted one more. “No, wait TWO more in the bushes!” One of the ones in the bushes came out, and we could see the last one standing in the shadows, looking at us.

Suddenly the second rhino looks like he’s about to charge us, and we sprint behind the elephant, while throwing sticks at the rhino to make him think twice. The mahout charges the elephant toward the rhino to deterr it from attacking us. He successfully chases it away, but that leaves the two of us vulnerable from the other two, so we leg it out of there before we get completely surrounded! Not thirty seconds later, my guide spots another rhino in the dense undergrowth of the jungle, and the elephant is once more called in as a body guard. We reach the next waterhole, where two grown rhinos are wallowing in the mud, a mother with calf is grazing, and two more adults come out of the brush opposite from where we are! Again the situation suddenly goes from interesting to dangerous, and we decide that it’s time to get out of there before we’re surrounded!
On less than an hour’s walk through the community forest, I saw a total of ten rhinos, and the guide saw eleven!

Immediately after the intense jungle walk, we headed over to the river to go canoeing. The canoe was a hollowed out log, and we were seven people in it, including the guide and the guy poleing us down the gentle stream. The first croc we saw was submerged, with only it’s nose and eyes sticking out of the crystal clear water. Soon after we got ashore to look at another great big rhino bull, this time from a safer distance. Back in the canoe we saw a half dozen more crocs, before we reached the place where we got out to go to an elephant breeding centre. In november one of the elephants had twins, according to the guide the only time such an event has happened! One of the older elephant calves was very curious, and being no bigger than a pony, he wasn’t tied up, so he walked over to everyone and smelled their stuff, and tried to take the things that smelled good! ๐Ÿ˜€ He was about one year old, but a bit sickly, so he was smaller than the other one year olds. When a tame elephant gets pregnant, it takes 2-3 years before it can work again, so wild elephant bulls mating with the tame cows is actually quite a problem! It is also very expensive, and takes a lot of work to raise and train an elephant. The training can’t start before the elephant is about 2-3 years old, and it can’t do any work until it’s about ten. Between the age of 16 and 18 they reach maturity and become able to breed.

We were picked up at the breeding centre by a jeep from the resort, and inย  the sunset on our way back, we saw another group of rhinos, and stopped. It turned out to be a group of five, led by a huge bull. I got some awesome pictures, and ended up having seen 16 rhinos in one day!

Wednesday Morning I got up at 5.30am, for an hour and a half of bird spotting, before breakfast and the bus ride home. I was home at 3.45pm, and at four I met up with some of the Norwegians for a going-away-dinner. Immediately after dinner, we had a final meeting between me and the church board, and I was given a very nice letter of thank you for the work I’d done. This morning I was up at 4am, to do some laundry while there was electricity… I went back to bed at five, however, and slept till seven thirty. I packed, returned the bicycle I’ve been borrowing, and then one of my “bosses” was very kind and drove me to the airport. It’s been great, and Ive felt very welcome in the community of expats in Kathmandu. ๐Ÿ˜€

It is now just past midnight, I am in New Delhi, and will soon be boarding my flight to Bangkok. I’ve been upgraded to first class on this flight, so I might actually look forward to some sleep tonigh, which is more than I expected. The flight leaves at 1am Indian time, and arrives four and a half hours later, at 7am Thai time. There I will wait nine hours before I fly the last hour and a half to Ho Chi Minh City.

20 March

13 hours later… I am waiting for my flight to Ho Chi Minh, boarding starts in 50 minutes. The plane saved up a good half an hour on the flight to Bangkok, so I arrived before 6.30am. First class was brilliant, but I still didn’t fall asleep before we had started the descent, and woke with a start as we touched down. I’ve slept about 5 minutes in the past thirty hours. I tried to lie down for a bit on a row of seats here at the airport, but the world was spinning so bad I started to get nauseated, so I dropped it. I guess I’ll sleep like a baby before we take off from Bangkok…
When I got here, I went directly to the transfer station, at the other end of the airport. There I was told I had to pick up my luggage myself, which meant going through immigration in Thailand. Baggage claim was of course at the end of the airport where I’d arrived, so I walked back. Immigration, which was almost deserted when I arrived, was by then crowded to the point of bursting. By the time I got my luggage it was 9 o’clock, and I headed directly for check in, so I could go back through customs and immigration, and find a place to crash. The problem was that it was too early, check in for myย  flight didn’t start till 12, so I had to hang around for three hours. When I finally got to check in, the woman at the counter started asking for some letter from Vietnam that she meant I had to have to get into the country, but I’ve double checked that I, as a Norwegian citizen, don’t need that letter unless I’m staying in Vietnam for more than 30 days. I guess I was pretty convincing, in my rather reduced and sleep deprived state, because she then proceeded to check me in. By the time I got back to the place I’d been at 6.45am, it was 1pm. I can’t fall asleep now, because then I suspect I will oversleep the boarding call, even though I’m sitting right next to the gate. I decided to write this in order to stay awake, so bear with me if I’m not making any sense. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I sincerely hope they won’t make any trouble at the airport in Saigon, and claim like the clerk here that I need some extra letter, because I’m so worn out I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain that I’m Norwegian, and don’t need their stupid piece of paper! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

I also hope Annikken is not as beat as I am, because then finding a hotel to stay until I can check for answers from the CS’ers I have sent couch requests to might prove to be a daunting task… ๐Ÿ˜› (By the time you read this, things will probably be in order, though, and I have slept enough to be coherent again)