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Archive for March 2018

5 Days in Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

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4 Days in Battambang, Cambodia

I was really looking forward to my stay in Battambang because I thought it would be my only chance to see the “real” Cambodia outside of the cities. Although Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of attractions within the city itself. Most people visit Battambang to ride a bicycle or motorbike around the countryside surrounding the city. There are plenty of attractions within a 30km radius of Battambang that are fun to navigate to on your own.

On my first day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle from a rental shop on Street 2.5. I paid only $2USD to have the bike for the whole day. I pedalled 15 km to Phnom Sampeau (also sometimes called Phnom Sampov), a hill with a temple on top of it that affords a great view over the city. It was not an easy ride in the Cambodian heat, let me tell you. I had to keep stopping every few minutes to take a drink of water.

Soaked with sweat and severely dehydrated, I finally got to Phnom Sampeau, parked my bike, and paid the $3USD entrance fee. Just as I was about to start walking up the stairs, a young Cambodian boy approached me and asked if I was going up to the temple. I had heard that there are always local children hanging around who take it upon themselves to act as guides for tourists around the temple and caves on the hill, and then expect a couple of dollars for their services. Sure enough, the boy (who told me he was 13) accompanied me up the stairs without asking me whether I wanted him to or not. I walked and talked with him for a while, and then handed him a $1 bill and told him I could go the rest of the way by myself. He accompanied me all the way to the temple anyway, but then thankfully left me to sightsee on my own.

The temple itself isn’t really anything special, but the view over Battambang from where it stands is pretty nice. There are tons of monkeys hanging around the temple, so be careful. Thankfully, they seemed completely uninterested in me for the most part. There was a curious little one that kept coming towards me as I was walking away from him, but I managed to scare him off before he attacked.

After seeing the temple, I walked around and explored a couple of cool caves around the hill. During my ramble, I ran into the Cambodian boy again. He and a couple of other boys took me to a cave known as Flower Cave. Then he brought me into a small, dark cave where I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see bats flying around overhead. (He assured me in advance that I did not have to pay him anything for this tour.)

Battambang

Flower Cave

Whether you choose to cycle, take a motorbike, or hire a tuk-tuk, I highly recommend checking out Phnom Sampeau. There’s quite a lot to see there.

On my second day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle again. This time I headed towards the ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, about 12 km outside of town. The ruins don’t cover a very big area, but it was pretty cool to climb around and explore them. As a bonus, there were only a few other people there, so I could take as many selfies as I wanted without feeling self-conscious.

That night, I went to a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) circus. PPSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Cambodian children through arts training and educational programs. Their circus is well-known as one of the top attractions in Battambang. The performers at the show I attended were absolutely incredible. It’s insane what some people can do with their bodies. I was a little bit terrified when one of the female performers started hula-hooping with a ring of fire, but she pulled it off effortlessly. And when another performer built a tower by balancing cylinders and boards on top of each other, I was like, “Oh hell no. Ain’t no way you gon’ stand up on that, boy.” But then lo and behold, he stood up and balanced on it while hardly even shaking! Don’t miss a PPSA circus performance if you visit Battambang. (I paid $14USD for my ticket, and the show lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.)

The next day I didn’t do too much of anything. I had planned to take a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is supposedly the #1 must-do attraction in Battambang, but I found out from the staff at my hostel that morning that the old Bamboo Train has been closed and the new one is located some 20km out of town. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to take a tuk-tuk there and back, so I decided to just spend the day walking around the town.

The hostel that I stayed at, Here Be Dragons (great hostel!), happened to be hosting a cocktail party in their bar that night where all cocktails were $2USD from 5PM – 11PM. I decided to go on a hunt for a bottle of vodka to use for pre-drinking before heading to the bar that night. Let me tell you, I have never in my life had so much difficulty finding a bottle of alcohol. I walked around the town for hours without success. I inquired at so many convenience stores whether they had any vodka (or rum or gin or anything else that would alter my mental state), but the answer was always negative. Finally I popped into a random, unassuming little shop and saw a row of whiskey bottles on display — apparently the only kind of alcohol they sold there. I realized this was the closest I was going to come to what I wanted, so I asked how much it was. The girl working there told me it was 3500 Cambodian riel, which is $0.90USD. Damn, what a steal! Granted, the alcohol content was only 23%, so it was hardly even whiskey at all, but beggars can’t be choosers. The girl wiped off the thick layer of dust coating the entire bottle (clearly this whiskey is not a big seller) and put it into a bag for me. I walked away feeling finally victorious, and also convinced that bottled vodka simply does not exist in Battambang.

On my last day in the city, I rented a bicycle once again for another hot, sweaty ride through the Cambodian countryside. My goal this time was to reach Phnom Banan, another hill with a temple built on top of it and great views. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to Phnom Banan. It would have been a 21-km ride there and a 21-km ride back, and I was just too hot and sweaty to complete that mammoth task (not to mention the long walk up the stairs to the top of the hill). Besides, I had slept in that day and consequently didn’t start my bike ride as early as I would have liked, so I was worried I might not make it home before dark if I took time to explore Phnom Banan. I rode as far as a temple which, according to my map, is known as Wat Bay Damram (about a 15-km ride) and then turned around and headed back. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to Phnom Banan, but at least I got to see a glimpse of rural Cambodian life during my ride. That’s what I really wanted to see when I came to Battambang anyway.

Battambang is a place that you should definitely visit if you want to see what Cambodia is like outside of the cities. There’s nothing like having the freedom to explore on your own two wheels, and Battambang provides plenty of opportunities to do that. As long as you don’t mind being (extremely) hot and sweaty all day, you’ll have a great time there!

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia!

4 Days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

While I was in Thailand and Vietnam, so many people warned me that Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a scary place to be. Whenever I told people that I was staying there for four days, they looked at me in shock and assured me that that was way too long to spend there. Almost everybody I spoke to who had been to Phnom Penh told me that either somebody had tried to rob them there or they knew somebody who had been robbed there. Nobody seemed to have anything good to say about the city. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about my upcoming time in Phnom Penh.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all. I honestly have no idea why everybody seems to hate Phnom Penh so much. I never felt the slightest bit unsafe while walking through the streets there. To me, it seems to be a pretty typical Southeast Asian city in every regard. The tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent — it seemed like every 30 seconds somebody shouted at me, “Hello, lady. Tuk-tuk?” — but they’re completely harmless if you just ignore them. Of course I kept a close eye on my bag at all times, just in case, but there’s really no reason to be scared here.

There are two main sights in Phnom Penh that nobody leaves the city without seeing: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. During the 1970s, Cambodia fell under control of an evil communist party called the Khmer Rouge. In their attempt to create a perfect society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians. Under this murderous regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the country lost 30% of its population.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison for detaining, interrogating, torturing, and murdering innocent people whom they deemed enemies of the revolution. Today it’s a museum that allows visitors to learn about the horrors that occurred there during the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. It’s certainly not a fun place to visit, but it’s an essential stop in Phnom Penh for anyone who wants to understand the unfathomable suffering that Cambodians underwent only a few decades ago.

Phnom Penh

The day after I went to Tuol Sleng museum, I visited the Killing Fields. This is one of the many sites in Cambodia where prisoners from S-21 and other prisons were taken to be executed (beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death because bullets were too expensive) and buried in mass graves. I paid a tuk-tuk driver $15USD to take me there, wait for me while I visited, and then drive me back to the city. (It’s about a half-hour drive each way.)

Entrance to the Killing Fields is another $6USD, and you get an audio guide for free. I normally don’t like audio guides and don’t bother with them, but this one definitely enhanced the experience a hundredfold. The buildings that once stood at the Killing Fields have been torn down and replaced by signs that explain what was once there, but the audio guide elaborates extensively on what the signs say. The information is terribly interesting too, and I learned a lot during the 80 minutes or so that I spent at the Killing Fields. It’s mind-boggling and horrifying to think of the atrocities that human beings committed against other human beings here and elsewhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

After I got back from the Killing Fields, I walked to Phnom Penh’s Central Market. In terms of how it’s laid out and what’s sold there, the Central Market resembles every other market in Southeast Asia. The cool thing about this one is the large, dome-roofed Art Deco building that it’s housed in. It’s worth checking out if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh.

The next day, I decided to check out the Royal Palace, which is the official residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is certainly beautiful, but definitely not worth the $10USD entrance fee. It was modelled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so the buildings look very similar to the ones there. If I remember correctly though, the temple complex in Phnom Penh is much smaller and less impressive than the one in Bangkok. I’m sure I spent far more time exploring the Grand Palace than the Royal Palace. So if you’ve already seen Bangkok’s palace, you can probably pass on seeing Phnom Penh’s.

If you want a hostel recommendation, the Mad Monkey is THE place to stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a huge, clean hostel with its own bar, restaurant, and pool. The city doesn’t seem to have a huge number of options in terms of nightlife — everybody in the hostel heads out to the same small nightclub at 11:45 every night, and then just walks back home after dancing for a while — but I always had a fun night while staying at Mad Monkey. They host a different event in the bar every night of the week (e.g. free keg parties, free punch parties, pub crawls, pub quizzes, BBQs, etc.), so it’s easy to meet people and socialize. It’s pretty clear why this is the most popular hostel in Phnom Penh.

As you can see, my apprehension towards Phnom Penh turned out to be completely unfounded. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as hell, but nobody ever made me feel at all unsafe during the four days I spent there. To be honest, there aren’t a ton of things to do in the city, so I can understand why so many people want to leave after seeing the Killing Fields and S-21. But I personally had quite a good time in Phnom Penh, thanks to the cool hostel I stayed at and the great people I met there.

Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia!

5 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

I actually liked Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it was basically going to be a repeat of Hanoi — terrifying traffic, dingy streets, impassable sidewalks. To my surprise, I found HCMC to be completely different from Hanoi in all the best ways. For the most part, you can actually walk on the sidewalks there — they’re not crammed full of parked motorbikes and people eating on little plastic chairs. HCMC is just so much brighter, sunnier, and generally more pleasant than Hanoi.

My first day in HCMC I decided to devote to some standard sightseeing. First I walked to the city’s most famous market, Ben Thanh market. I didn’t take any pictures there, but it’s basically just your typical Southeast Asian indoor market. I’m sure you can imagine what it looks like. I browsed around aimlessly among the narrow lanes for a while and then left.

After that I decided to check out the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a viewing platform on the 49th floor. The ticket price is expensive at 200,000VND, but you get a fabulous 360° view of the city.

Ho Chi Minh City

When I felt I had soaked up the view long enough, I returned to the ground and headed towards one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Notre Dame cathedral. They’re currently doing some maintenance work on it, so it’s not at maximum attractiveness, but the façade is still as stately as ever.

Directly across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office, so I figured I might as well check that out while I was there. I know nothing about architecture, but I can see why the post office is well-known as one of the best examples of French colonial style in the city.

On my second day in HCMC, I paid a visit to Independence Palace (formerly known as Reunification Palace). Honestly, I’m neither a history person nor a museum person, so this wasn’t the most enthralling attraction for me. I walked around the palace peeking into one fancy-ish room after another until they all started to look the same. I wouldn’t call Independence Palace a must-see unless you’re really into Vietnamese history.

The one place I knew I couldn’t miss seeing while in HCMC was the Mekong Delta. Normally I hate taking tours — I would much rather visit places on my own — but since I only had one day to visit the Mekong, a tour was both the easiest and the cheapest way to do so. I stayed at The Hideout (the most popular party hostel in HCMC) and noticed they were offering a one-day Mekong Delta tour for only 230,000VND. That sounded like a good deal, so I booked it.

Well, the tour turned out to be a major cash grab and a reminder of why I hate tours. Our first stop in the Mekong Delta was a coconut candy making workshop. Our tour guide gave us a brief demonstration of how coconut candy is made there, then offered us free samples of the finished product. After that we were given an ample amount of free time to browse around the shop and check out all the coconut-related items for sale. It was pretty obvious we were only brought there in the hopes that we would purchase something.

Later in the day we went to an apiary for a tea tasting which was nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to persuade us to buy the honey that they put in our tea. The tea was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, so I really had no inclination to buy any of the ingredients in it. After a very basic lunch, we had about half an hour of free time to explore Phoenix Island, but it was hard to see much in such a short time. There were some pretty flowers on the island though.

After leaving Phoenix Island, we finally got to do something cool: we went for a ride down the river in one of those little wooden rowboats. Just before getting out of the boat I was in, one of the women paddling it tapped me and said, “Tip money, tip money,” so I gave her 10,000VND.

The next thing we did was listen to a traditional Vietnamese musical performance. Towards the end of the performance, which only lasted a few minutes, one of the singers came around and put a basket on each table in the hopes that we would put money in it. I think a few people tipped, but she took back most of the baskets empty.

On the way back to HCMC, we stopped for 20 minutes at Vinh Trang pagoda. This is a beautiful pagoda, and our brief stop here was probably my favourite part of the day. The pagoda is surrounded by three large, white Buddha statues — one standing, one lying down, and one extra jolly Buddha sitting and laughing.

The next day, I decided to take another day trip — this time a DIY one. I chose to go to Monkey Island in Can Gio Mangrove Forest. It’s not actually an island at all, just a nature reserve that’s overloaded with monkeys. Believe it or not, I had never in my life interacted with monkeys before, so I was super excited to be in the midst of them for the first time.

Since I had no prior experience with monkeys, I didn’t know exactly what kind of behaviour to expect from them. I had heard that they sometimes bite and steal things out of people’s hands, but I guess I was too excited to be nervous around them. I was brave enough at the beginning of my visit to get right up close to them and stick my phone in their face to take their picture. There was a cute little one that I allowed to grab at my pants while I was kneeling in front of him and filming him. I thought it was charming and adorable until he started biting my leg. It was a very gentle bite that I barely even felt through my pants, but that’s when the seed of my mistrust of monkeys was planted. I realized for the first time that these creatures are savages that are not to be trusted.

A few minutes later, a bigger monkey approached me, stood up on his two hind legs, and started grabbing my bag. Decidedly uneasy now, I shook him off and quickly retreated. Later in the day, one of them actually jumped right up on my bag. Not gonna lie — I screamed a little as I shook the savage beast off. Monkey Island was definitely a cool experience, and I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I will really be able to get excited anymore at the prospect of seeing monkeys.

If you’re not yet jaded by monkeys, and the idea of being attacked by a horde of them doesn’t faze you, getting to Monkey Island from HCMC is easy. Just walk to Ben Thanh bus station and take Bus #20 to Binh Khanh ferry station (about 45 minutes). Then take the ferry across the river and get on Bus #90 headed towards Cam Thanh. Make sure you let the driver know that you want to get off at Lam Vien Can Gio. I think the ride from the ferry station took about an hour.

All in all, HCMC is a very cool city and I had a great time there. I’m a little sad to be leaving Vietnam, and I’m both excited and apprehensive about my upcoming time in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to seeing the country, but I’ve had so many people tell me that the capital city, Phnom Penh, is a highly sketchy place where you’re at constant risk of being mugged. Well, Phnom Penh is my next stop, so I guess I’ll soon find out for myself!

3 Days in Nha Trang, Vietnam

I was pretty excited to finally leave Hoi An and arrive in the beach resort town of Nha Trang. Walking around and sightseeing in a city is nice and all, but I was so ready to be by the sea and sand. I think it must be impossible to be bored or sulky when you’re by the ocean.

On my first day in Nha Trang I walked to one of the city’s main attractions, the Po Nagar temple. The temple was cool, and the view over the water from here was pretty nice.

Nha Trang

After that I decided to walk to Long Son pagoda and the big Buddha statue behind it. The views from the Buddha statue weren’t the most impressive, but I think it was still a worthwhile and easy excursion.

My second day in Nha Trang was actually one of the highlights of my trip so far. I took the cable car across the bay to Vinpearl Land amusement park on Hòn Tre island, where I spent the day going on fun rides and soaking up these amazing views.

If you go to Vinpearl Land, don’t miss a ride on the ferris wheel. The views are incredible, and the wheel moves super slowly so you have plenty of time to take pictures.

Honestly, most of the rides at Vinpearl Land are pretty tame compared to those at other amusement parks I’ve been to. There’s only one roller coaster, and the entire ride lasts for what felt like maybe 20 seconds. Fortunately, I’m not an adrenaline junkie and I don’t like roller coasters, so the rides at Vinpearl Land were perfect for me. They were fun without being scary or nauseating. My favourite ride was these swings:

Admission to Vinpearl Land is not cheap at 800,000VND (price includes the cable car ride there and back), but I think it’s worth it. After all, you’d pay a hell of a lot more than that to spend a day at Disneyland, and there you’d spend most of the day waiting in lines. Vinpearl Land was blissfully crowd-free, and I hardly spent any time waiting in line for a ride.

My third day in Nha Trang was a much-needed beach day — the first one of my trip so far! My hostel was only a 5-10 minute walk from the beach, so it was easy to leave all my valuables at home and head for the sand. (I never bring my phone or money to the beach when I’m by myself, so I only go swimming if there’s a beach within easy walking distance of my hostel.) The beach in Nha Trang is long, clean, and sandy. I almost never fall asleep in public, but I couldn’t help dozing off as I lay lazily on my towel in the sand. When I woke up, my eyelids were sunburned. Beach bum problems!

I wish I could tell you about the nightlife in Nha Trang, but I didn’t really get to experience it. I didn’t arrive at my hostel until 10:30PM on my first night, so I just grabbed some food, took a shower, and went to bed. I went out on my second night with some people from my hostel, but ended up leaving shortly after midnight because I just wasn’t feeling the bar we were at.

On my third night, I fully intended to go out again. I took a shower, put on a dress, and re-did my make-up. As I was performing this routine, my stomach started feeling funny. This was not a good sign, but I was determined to have a fun night out in Nha Trang, so I started drinking vodka and orange juice anyway. Pretty soon though, it became clear that I was way too sick to go out that night. I stopped drinking and just lay down in my bed. I ended up spending most of the night vomiting so violently in my dorm’s ensuite bathroom that my throat was sore and the water I drank didn’t taste right. Surprise, surprise — I was sick in Asia once again.

The next morning I felt fine, and continued to feel fine the whole time I was at the beach. In the evening though, my stomach started feeling off again. There was no puking that night, thankfully, but whatever was upsetting my stomach the previous night was definitely still there.

I left on the train the next morning feeling fine, but wishing I could have stayed longer in Nha Trang. It was so nice to be so close to the beach, and I wish I could have experienced the nightlife more.

Oh well. I’m sure there will be plenty of fun to be had in the next city I visit: Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon)!