Angkor Wat, I love you!

img_8737Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is rated the world’s number 1 site to visit by Lonely Planet. It has also been at the top of my travel bucket list since I first started the list. The famous view of Angkor Wat is recognisable to many, although what most people perhaps do not realise is that Angkor Wat is only one temple amongst over 1,000 in the Angkor area. Thus a visit here actually involves far more than just Angkor Wat alone! 

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Angkor was the Capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th – 15th centuries. During that time it was the largest pre-industiral city in the world, believed to have housed up to a million inhabitants. Over 1,000 temples were built in this area, ranging in size from what are now simple piles of brick rubble to the most famous landmark in Cambodia – Angkor Wat. A number of the temples here have been restored, and the area now houses the greatest site of Khmer architecture. Even if the history of the site doesn’t particularly interest you, I dare anyone to visit this location and not leave feeling amazed.

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As I have already mentioned, Angkor Wat is, for many, the only known temple of this site. At 402 acres it is the largest religious monument in the world, and is truly spectacular. Built in the early 12th century it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhism at the end of the 12th century. Unsurprisingly, it is absolutely swarming with tourists from opening to close. It’s actually possible to do an early morning trip to view the temple at sunrise, but unfortunately the weather forecast was so bad when we were there that we decided against it. (Something new for my bucket list!) For me, reaching this temple gave me the same feeling as viewing the Colosseum in Rome for the very first time. It’s such a famous historical site, and as an Ancient Historian those always make me excited! To view something you have thought of for so long, and for it not only to live up to those expectations but to exceed them is one of the most amazing things ever. This was quite possibly one of the best days of my entire summer.

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Since there are such a huge number of temples at Angkor seeing even a small percentage of them is impossible. Personally I would recommend aiming to see five at the most, as this allows you enough time to explore the temples properly, but without getting too sick of them! The number one choice is, pretty obviously, Angkor Wat!

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My second recommendation would be Ta Prohm, which is also referred to as the Indiana Jones Temple. The temple was built in the late 12th and early 13th century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, and is one of the few temples in the complex that has been left virtually untouched from the way that it was first found. The atmosphere created by the overgrown nature of the temple has made it incredibly popular, and is in fact one of the most visited temples in the complex. Walking around here was a strange mix of amazement and continuous goosebumps. In some ways this temple truly does feel as though it’s a film set rather than a real religious site, I half expected to see Harrison Ford running out of the jungle at any moment! Although Angkor Wat was truly spectacular, I think that this may have actually have been my favourite temple out of the ones we visited. 

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I would then recommend going to see Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was the last capital city built during the Khmer Empire in the late 12th century. Along with the Bayon temple (which I’ll mention later) it is particularly famous for the towers each decorated with four huge faces. They are stunning to see, and when up close to them you realise how incredibly detailed they actually are. Entering the site itself is equally as impressive, as the causeway of the South Gate is flanked by 54 gods and 54 demons, apparently depicting a popular Hindu legend ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.’ For us this site was made even better by the procession of elephants we passed!

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My fourth and final recommendation is Bayon temple. Like Angkor Thom this temple is famous for its huge stone faces, although here there are over 200 facing in every direction! Historians aren’t entirely sure who is depicted in these faces, although it is speculated that it may be King Jayavarman VII – the ruler who built both Angkor Thom and Bayon temple, or perhaps a mixture of the ruler and Buddha. Bayon was also built in the 12th century as part of the King’s expansion of his capital Angkor Thom and the Bayon can be found at the exact centre of the city. Like Angkor Wat this site is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to get the perfect photo. It’s also incredibly easy to get lost within the complex and trying to locate the rest of your group is surprisingly difficult – as I personally learnt! But there’s something spine tingling about this site, and I am so pleased that we decided to see one more site before we headed home for the day. 

img_2242img_2256img_2265Well there you have it, my top four recommendations for the Angkor complex! Admittedly I only saw the four temples mentioned in this post, but we found that more than enough for one day. You can get a two day pass for the site but personally I think that for many that may be a bit too long visiting temples! This was one of the best days of my entire trip, and is somewhere I think everyone should try and visit at least once in their lives. Lonely Planet is definitely on to something listing it as the number one place to visit in the world!

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Pico Iyer

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Phnom Penh adventures

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Since we only had a couple of days to explore Phnom Penh we were only able to visit a limited number of sites. We began our second day by visiting the National Museum, which itself is an incredibly beautiful building. The museum houses pottery, bronzes, weaponry, and the world’s best collection of Khmer sculpture which spans over more than a millennium. There were some absolutely stunning exhibits, even if I didn’t really understand the meaning or the context of any of it – I say this as someone who admittedly knows absolutely nothing about the history of Cambodia or the Khmer people! It’s a really interesting museum to have a look around even without truly understanding what it is that you’re seeing (and of course if you’re not cheap students like us you could always invest in one of the information booklets!) It was a beautiful place to spend an hour or two, and if you’re only going to visit one museum or historical sight I would definitely recommend this one. 

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Our next stop of the day was the Royal Palace.  The palace complex was built in 1866 after the capital was moved to Phnom Penh and still to this day houses the King of Cambodia. Unfortunately it was closed when we went to visit and so we were only able to walk outside the palace walls. It was still a very pretty area though, with lots of grassy areas to sit and have a break. I suppose it just gives me one more reason to come back and visit Cambodia again! 

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Anybody visiting Phnom Penh must take the time to see Psar Thmei – also known as the Central Market (referring to its location and size). I simply cannot begin to describe the complexity of this market. You walk through what is essentially a huge rabbits warren, with stalls spreading out around you in every single direction. The shops seem to be organised roughly in theme, so one moment you’re walking through women’s clothing, then shoes, then men’s clothing, electronics, underwear etc. No matter what way you turn there are stalls, their owners calling out to you to come and buy their goods! It was a great place to buy more travel pants (although apparently it has a reputation amongst the locals for being overpriced). Be warned, as we soon found out it is incredibly easy to get lost within this maze, and if you loose a member of the group you’d better have a phone on you, since finding each other without one proved impossible! 

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I only had a very short period of time within Cambodia, and this is perhaps the only thing I regret of my entire summer travels. Even just a couple of days in Phnom Penh showed me how incredibly vibrant and friendly this country is, and it is definitely high on my list of countries I need to return to when I have the chance! But part of me was also incredibly excited to be leaving this city and to be travelling on to Siem Reap. Why? Because it was there that I would finally be able to see Angkor Wat, the site that has been number one on my travel bucket list since I first started the list! 

“It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”  John Green

A brief view of Cambodia

The next country in my Asian adventure of 2016 was Cambodia! Sadly, whilst planning our summer travels I was informed of some unexpected changes in my dates for teaching in China. This meant that I had about two weeks less time travelling with my uni friends than I had been expecting. What made me particularly upset was the thought that I was going to miss out on seeing Cambodia – the country I had been most excited to visit (out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand). But my travel buddies were amazing and happily rearranged some of our dates so that I would be able to get a few days to visit this amazing country, and, in particular, to see Angkor Wat!!! 

14163909_10210241896388908_1818979631_oOur journey into Cambodia began with a rather long bus ride from Vietnam, which ended in Phnom Penh – a name which I still find absolutely impossible to say correctly for some strange reason. Phnom Penh has been the capital of the country since the French colonisation, and in the 1920s was referred to as the “Pearl of Asia” as it was believed to be one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. Some of the French styled buildings can still be seen within the city, mixed together with the more traditional architectural styles which make it a truly intriguing place to visit.

Since we only had a very short period to see the city we decided to take a tut-tut tour. Well… I say we decided, it was more that one driver was so persistent and offered such a good price that we just couldn’t resist! It was actually a really interesting way to see the city. As we had learnt when we first arrived at the bus station from Vietnam, the taxi’s in Cambodia are all tut-tut’s! It was my first ever ride in one and I have to admit they were great fun. It was a different way to travel, and in the heat it was lovely to have the continuous breeze. A word of warning however, if you’re a nervous person then perhaps you won’t enjoy it so much. There were multiple occasions where we were driving into ongoing traffic, or squeezing into spaces that seemed far too small to be possible! Even facing away from the driver didn’t help much, as the reactions of the people watching what was going on behind you was almost worse! But like I said – I personally enjoyed it! 

First stop on our tut-tut tour was Wat Phnom, a pretty buddhist temple built in 1373. At 27 metres high it’s actually the tallest religious building within the capital. It was a nice little temple to visit, and I always find it interesting to compare architectural styles between the different countries. I must admit however, it wasn’t the most impressive religious site i’ve ever visited, and I certainly found pagodas in Vietnam had a greater visual impact. But it was still a pretty site, and an interesting spot to visit. 

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Our guide then took  us to see the Independence monument and the statue of the Late King Norodom Sihanouk, which are only a short walk away from each other. The Independence monument, shockingly enough, was built in 1958 to commemorate the independence from the French five years earlier. The building takes the form of a  lotus-shaped stupa, the architectural style of the monument mirroring that of the famous site Angkor Wat and other Khmer historical sites. The statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in 2012, was built to commemorate a ruler loved deeply by his subjects. The memorial is open to the public, although we weren’t actually sure about this when we were there since no one was approaching any closer than the steps of the structure. It’s a very impressive monument, due partly to the sheer size of it – the statue itself is 4.5 metres tall, and is housed within a 27 metre shrine! 

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Not a bad first day in Cambodia – and especially considering that the weather was pretty bad (as you can see in my photos)! I’m really happy that we did the tut-tut tour. It wasn’t something we had ever planned to do, just one of those things you stumble across as you’re out exploring. Our guide was really lovely and gave us little bits of information about each of the sites we visited, and waited patiently in his tut-tut until we were ready to move on to the next place. The truly amazing thing is that the entire tour was only £5 each! It’s something I would definitely recommend for anyone who’s planning on visiting the city – although make sure you’re getting a good deal for your money!

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Our lovely driver/tour-guide!

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway

Top ten tips for Vietnam!

Well, that is officially everything from my Vietnam travels! And now to finish off I’m going to give my personal top ten tips along with my top ten favourite photos (in no particular order) Enjoy….

1.) Be prepared for the climate: Sounds kind of obvious I know. But really, if you’ve never been to Asia before then you just cannot image what the heat feels like. The air is thick with humidity and you will sweat even you feel you shouldn’t! It may simply have been because of the time of year we visited, but we found the North of Vietnam far more hot and humid than the South, so prepare yourself for endless sweat! 14075055_10210170913654384_1269167155_o

2.) Trains are your new best friend: Vietnam is a big country but the train system there is pretty amazing. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend and how concerned you are about your personal comfort level during a journey, there are different seats and beds available to you. We booked all our trains in advance even before getting to Vietnam which actually worked out really well, so if you’re feeling organised I would recommend it. The Man in Seat Sixty-One is an awesome website to check out to help you with your travel planning. 

Here’s a link to their map of South-East Asia!

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3.) Overnight trains are not as bad as you might think: sure, the rooms are a bit small and not up to the standard of a hotel, and you begin to debate with yourself if you actually need to use the loo or whether you can hold it for the next 10 hours. But in reality, they’re fine. They’re an easy and inexpensive way to deal with long journeys (our longest train was 16 hours but we slept for the majority of it) and if you’re on a budget then it’s great since you get travel and accommodation in one! 

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4.) Be careful with your money: the exchange rate between the British Pound Sterling and Vietnamese Dong is 1: 2908.43 – so essentially £1 is 3,000 Dong. This can cause some confusion when you’re trying to work out quickly how much something costs. Believe me, it is unfortunately easy to hand over 50,000 Dong (£17.20) instead of 5,000 Dong (£1.72) without realising it until it’s too late. 

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5.) Keep an eye on your taxi metre: all the taxi’s we rode in were perfectly fine except one. You should always take taxi’s with metres in them which we did every time. Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise until it was too late was that one taxi driver had increased his metre to an absurd rate, so that we were charged way, WAY more than we should have. We knew that we were being scammed, but unfortunately the rest of my group didn’t share my desire to confront the driver about it! Learn from our mistake. If a taxi driver has obviously scammed you demand a receipt, or if he doesn’t give you one take down his taxi number and registration number. That way you can ask your hostel reception staff to phone up the taxi company and get your money back for you. 

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6.) The road has no rules!: Perhaps the only rule would be ‘if there’s a space, take it’. Traffic lights are not a thing, and vehicles will not stop for you if you politely wait at the side of the road. If you’re confident, step out and make your way across the road. Just make sure that you leave cars and bikes enough time to slow down or move around you! Don’t panic, just walk across slowly. Or, if you prefer the safety in numbers approach, wait until there’s a crowd wanting to cross the road and tag along with them.

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7.) A one time splurge: Vietnam is a country where you can enjoy most things at an incredibly cheap cost. If you are a student looking for some inexpensive travel then this is a brilliant place for you. But there is one place where you simply have to make an exception – Ha Long Bay. Yes, this could be the most expensive day you will have on your entire trip. But there is one simple thing you have to remember. It is worth itSpend the money, you will never regret it.

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8.) Buy travel pants: Because they’re really comfortable, and they will keep you so much cooler than you would think. Because they’re colourful and pretty (and yes, I know how much of a girl I’m sounding right now). Because years after I first went to Vietnam I still wear my first ever pair as my pyjamas and not only are they still the most comfortable thing ever, but they are also one of my favourite souvenirs of all my travels. 

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9.)  Vegetarians will be fine: the two girls I was travelling with were both vegetarians and I must confess before we went out there I was slightly worried this may prove problematic. I was completely wrong. All the places we went to had vegetarian dishes and even the boat trip to Ha Long Bay had separate meals for them! Not sure I could say the same about vegans however. 

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10.) You’re going to be stared at: don’t be surprised when this happens. Everywhere you go, and all the time. You’ll be walking down the street and you will see people pointing you out to their friends. People may even come up to you and ask to take a photo with them (I should start charging for this – i’d make a fortune!) It’s a strange feeling at first but either you accept it and get used to it, or you get annoyed by it. I promise you, the first option is a lot less stressful!

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So there you have it, my top ten tips for Vietnam! An amazing country and one I already can’t wait to go and visit again. Stay tuned for the rest of my adventures!

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.” – Lewis Carroll

Củ Chi tunnels

 The  Củ Chi tunnels are a definite must whilst staying in Ho Chi Minh City. They get their name from their location in the Củ Chi District, although they are actually only one section of a far larger network of tunnels which lie beneath much of Vietnam as a whole. At their peak, the tunnel system ran all the way from the Capital of South Vietnam to the Cambodian border! The tunnels were made famous due to their use by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. However, don’t image it as just one tunnel running directly under the surface, since the complex actually stretched several stories down underground. During the Vietnam War they were not only used as hiding places, but also as routes for supplies and communication, food and weapon storage, living quarters and even kitchens and hospitals! 

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It is a very worthwhile day trip to go on, even if (like me) you’re not especially knowledgeable or interested in the history of the Vietnam War. We were picked up from our hostel and transported to the tunnels, and along the way we stopped off at a workshop. At first I wasn’t entirely sure why we had stopped here in particular. But as we got off the bus the long line of wheelchairs provided an answer. The shop provides work for the descendants of those exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals during the Vietnam War, and who were born with disabilities as a result. They are taught their trade and employed there, selling their wares in an enormous shop. Some of the artwork on display was truly beautiful. If I had the space to buy it, or the money to ship it home, I could easily have bought a dozen different items. 

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IMG_5793After some time to look around and shop we were put back onto the bus and taken to the tunnels. At Củ Chi 75 miles (121 km) worth of tunnels have been preserved and turned into a war memorial park. It’s actually possible to crawl through the tunnel system, although it’s amazing to realise that these tiny little tunnels have actually been enlarged to better suit Western tourists! (I dread to think how small they must have been previously). A word of warning, if like one of our group you’re not a fan of small spaces, don’t go down there. Whilst you’re not in the tunnels for a particularly long period of time it is small, quite dark despite the lighting, and incredibly hot! 

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As well as an opportunity to explore the tunnels we were provided with an English speaking guide who took us around the area. We were told how the Viet Cong created their tunnel system despite American efforts to destroy their efforts, how they produced weapons and tended their wounded underground. We were even shown the incredible variety of booby traps that were used against the American soldiers – truly astonishing all the different ways humans can think to kill or injure one another!

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Once you’ve finished the tour there is an area where you can sit and enjoy a cold drink. Unfortunately I can’t say ‘in peace’ since you will inevitably be kept company by the continuous sound of gun fire! The park has its own shooting range where you can pay to use a variety of different weapons. There are assault rifles such as the AK-47 and even the M60 machine gun. Some of the groups on the tour seemed to have a great time playing with all the different toys there! 

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The tunnels offer an insight into a different type of warfare used during this war. It’s astonishing to think that there were people who lived in these tunnels for long periods of times – even years, when after only 10 minutes even I (who quite enjoys small spaces) was craving fresh air and sunlight. The booby traps offer a gruesome insight into the Vietnamese way of fighting, particularly striking after having visited the War Remnants Museum the day previously. Perhaps visiting these two sights one after the other is the best way of beginning to see both sides to this picture. 

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” Anthony Bourdain

Ho Chi Minh City – Our final stop in Vietnam

Our final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named Saigon). To me this city seems to sum up Vietnam as a whole perfectly. It is a wonderfully chaotic blend of history and culture along with the dizzying business of modern 21st century life! Once again Lonely Planet seems to take the words right out of my mouth: ‘The ghosts of the past live on in buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but now the real beauty of the former Saigon’s urban collage is the seamless blending of these two worlds into one exciting mass.’ IMG_5780If you only visit one museum in the whole of Vietnam, make sure that it’s the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most popular museums in the country. It primarily deals with the Vietnamese War, although there is also some information here relating to the first Indochina War against the French colonialists. 

IMG_5782When you first enter the compound you come across equipment from the period including tanks and a variety of airplanes. In one corner there are even a number of unexploded weapons – although thankfully with their charges and fuses removed! As you explore the museum you find it is organised into different themed rooms, each filled with photos and short explanations of what the images show. 

IMG_5783A warning before you visit this museum, some of the images on show are very graphic. For example, there are rooms documenting the use and effects of Agent Orange and other chemical sprays, napalm and phosphorus bombs. There are images of the war itself, and of the descendants of those involved who have been crippled by exposure to these chemicals. There are even exhibits such a guillotine used by the French and South Vietnamese to execute prisoners and jars of preserved human fetuses believed to have been deformed by the chemicals already mentioned.

The museum does indeed present a shocking view of the wars in Vietnam. That being said, the images and the information provided should be taken with a pinch of salt as they are understandably very one sided. But no matter what your personal opinion is about the Vietnam war or America’s involvement in the country, the pictures are incredibly moving and you should be prepared to see some harrowing images before you enter this museum.

“The open road is the school of doubt in which man learns faith in man.” – Pico Lyer

A trip to the spa!

So far our trip to Vietnam had been pretty much non-stop travel. We were up every morning early and out all day seeing the sights – which is exactly how we liked it. But the continuous travels combined with jet lag soon began to have an effect. We therefore decided to have a day off from our hectic schedule to relax. But of course, this was still an opportunity to do something new, so we decided to visit Thap Ba Hot Spring Center!

IMG_5736As it turned out, this was one of the best choices we made of the trip! We started off our ‘treatment’ by visiting the mud baths. Now a little part of my brain was being very British and was wondering how many people would have shared the same mud as me. Would I be sitting in mud that had just been congealing there for the last month? Would I be essentially relaxing in things other that mud?!?! But never fear! I watched in delight as, once the group before us left, the mud was drained away, the ‘bath’ washed down with clean water and refilled with new mud! So the tiny little anxious part of my brain was quickly put to rest.

13501574_10209050562917360_6600742349127699665_nSecond surprise of the day was the actual consistency of the mud. Because really, ‘mud’ is the wrong word to use for what we were sitting in. Mud suggests something thick, clumpy. What we were sitting in was more like muddy water. Which I suppose makes sense when you consider that the point is to sit in the sun and let the mud dry and harden. If it was thick and gloopy it wouldn’t cover your body evenly and I suppose would take too long to dry. It was a very funny experience, especially considering the fact that we were supplied with little kiddie buckets which we used to pour the muddy water over each other. The only slight downside to the day was that there was light rain throughout our visit, which meant that we couldn’t dry off in the sun like you’re supposed to. But believe me, at the time we were so happy that we were cool that we couldn’t have cared less!

IMG_5740Part 2 of the spa trip was to rinse all of the mud off in nice strong showers. Now if you’ve never experienced a mud bath before, I want to let you into a little secret. It doesn’t matter how long you stand in that shower, it doesn’t matter how hard you scrub, you will NEVER get all the mud off you the first time. It simply isn’t possible. Be prepared to see mud in the shower for the next couple of days, even when you thought you were entirely clean! The second part of washing all the mud off was to walk through a small passage like structure that shot out jet streams at you from all angles. Sounds nice right? Nice and relaxing, perhaps it felt like a massage? No. Those jets were strong. And I mean STRONG. Strong enough that we were all shrieking and trying to get through as quickly as possible! Not something I would try for a second time, although admittedly very funny to watch others do.

IMG_5745Part 3 of the spa trip was far more relaxing. This part of the day saw us lounging in baths of hot water. As someone who loves a good bath every now and then, this was absolute heaven. It was such a nice feeling to simply lie there and unwind, although slightly strange to be enjoying the heat when normally our days were spent determinedly searching for places with air-conditioning!

Once we had finally had enough of the hot tub we had free range to go and enjoy a couple of different pools. There was also a cute little waterfall area where a lot of groups had pictures taken. It was amazing to finally have a swim, and actually so much more enjoyable since it was slightly cloudy and rainy that day. As someone who burns very easily, it was great to have fun playing in the pool knowing that I didn’t have to worry about sun cream or if my skin was going pink at all!

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Spa trips may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but this is a trip I would still recommend. It’s just something a little bit different, and an experience all in itself. In reality we went there more for the amusement factor than anything else, and spent most of the time messing around and amusing ourselves. It’s amazing how quickly you revert back to being 2 year olds when handed a bucket and a bath full of muddy water to play with! 

13557687_10209050563837383_6322232704889177131_n“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend. Robert Louis Stevenson