Hue

Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.

Gates to the Hue Imperial City.

Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.

Inside the Imperial City

All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.

Inside the Imperial City

I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.

A building in Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.

Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.

Sitting inside the mouth of the dragon at the abandoned water park.

The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.

Flumes at the abandoned water park.

The Ancient City of Hoi An

When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was not in the most upbeat of moods so the crowding of tourists and price hikes to match in the old city grated somewhat against my nerves. I bought my ticket to the old city for 120,000đ and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. The ticket allows one to enter any five of the twenty two sites or points of interest around the city but tourists are technically expected to carry the ticket with them at all times in the old city. This wasn’t something I saw enforced but apparently it does occasionally happen.

The Japanese Bridge requires a ticket to cross (sometimes) but this classic shotfrom the next bridge over doesn’t.

Having bought the ticket I realised I didn’t know which of the sights to use mine for so just soaked up the atmospheric streets and visited the central market. Entering the building that sold fabric and housed the cheapest of Hoi An’s famous tailoring services, I found myself walking through it with increasing speed because so much as glancing at a stall meant persistent calls to buy something, and in one case almost being herded into one. The outdoor section of the market, selling mostly produce and fish, was more enjoyable as being able to see the sky made the whole experience less claustrophobic.

By the river in the old city. Lots of buildings are painted this cheerful shade of yellow throughout the city

After an early jaunt through the night market and dinner I watched the sunset from one on the bridges over the Thu Bon river. This proved to be a refreshing end to a stressful day of flat tires crowded tourist spots. As the light dimmed, new lights appeared on the river as the boats rigged silk lanterns and people released floating lanterns for good luck.

Boats and lanterns on the Thu Bon River

The next day I planned my stops in the city before setting out. My first stop was the Museum of Trading Ceramics. While the information provided was limited, the museum was situated in a beautiful old merchant house and it was amazing to read about just how long Hoi An had been a trading port before its decline. After looking around the second floor, I walked to Phuc Kien Assembly Hall where merchants used to meet it also seemed to be part shrine and I loved the huge spirals of incense that hung burning from the ceiling.

In the courtyard on the Museum of Trading Ceramics.

My final stop of the day was the Minh Huong Pagoda which was very quiet. I had hoped to also visit the Tan Ky house but by the time I got there after devouring some fresh spring rolls (a new favourite of mine) in the central market, they had closed for lunch. Being too impatient to wait, I wandered the shops of the city, debating whether to replace my rucksack (currently rather holey) with a nice leather one. I was strongly dissuaded when the shop keeper dropped from 2,730,000đ to 1,100,000đ in the space of a minute. While this could probably could have been a good deal, only £33 for a leather bag, having had my arm grabbed when I went to leave after turning down the bag because it didn’t have a zip closure had rather soured my mood and I returned to the hostel.

Incense spirals and the shrine in the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall.

For dinner I had a life changing experience of bành mí from Bành Mí Phuong, a small stall made world renowned by Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it the best bành mí he had ever eaten.

Fresh spring rolls and a few other foods but most importantly, fresh spring rolls.

The next day I left all valuables at the hostel and set out for the beach on a bicylce from the hostel. After the first busy stretch, the cycle was quite a bit of fun and the rice paddies were a pleasant change of scenery. The beach was crowded, even when I cycled further down it to avoid paying bicycle parking costs (an excellent piece of advice from my hostel). After a swim where my inner selkie rejoiced at being in the sea again, I lounged on a sun chair in the shade (still managing to get burnt despite reapply my sun cream) and read my book.

Silk lanterns were on sale all over Hoi An.

In hindsight I should have known my cycle to the beach was too easy as I cycled all the way back to the hostel with a headwind buffering me about. To round off my stay I visited the Tan Ky house that aftenoon. I got a nice little talk about the combination of Japanese and Chinese architecture used. My favourite bit was a series of stickers marking the heights of various floods over the years. The highest was in 1964 and almost brushed the ceiling. This reminded me of a story I heard about a pub that used to remain open during floods so locals could kayak over for a pint.

Thu Bon River.

An Interlude to Discuss the Most Important Rule of Travel… and What Happens When You Break it.

If there is one rule to travelling that must always be obeyed it is never ever whatever you do, think a journey is going well until you have arrived at your destination on time and in one piece. If you do decide to break this sacred rule, know that when you wake up at 0520 in the morning expecting your bus to have just arrived in Hoi An, you will in fact be forty five minutes outside of Hoi An with a flat tire. Naturally there will be no spare tire, the majority of the hold will be filled with packages mysteriously wrapped in black plastic – probably drugs you will joke. After a smoke and just as you exit the bus that is starting to turn into a sweatbox without the air conditioner running, one of the drivers will jump on the back of a motorbike and depart for destinations unknown.

It will only be as this point, when you observe the lean of the bus, that you will realise there is a flat tire and that it will be a while yet before you make it to Hoi An. Not to worry you will think, as the grandmother-mother-child combo that were next to you all the way from Saigon flag down a local bus and speed away, with only forty five minutes to Hoi An and allowing half an hour to fix the tire, you will be on your way again in a couple of hours (in reality you are only jinxing the situation further).

A couple of hours is still a long time though, so you will open up the hold to see if your bag is easily collectable, if it is you plan to follow the locals who are performing a gradual exodus with each local bus that passes. As you are closing the last door (you can’t even see your bag), the remaining driver will lean out the door and shout at you in Vietnamese. You presume he is telling you to stop but the language sounds so angry it is just as likely he is trying to discuss the weather (unlikely since he is such a miserable looking fellow).

Plans of escape thwarted, you will order an ice coffee at the nearby cafe, even though it isn’t yet six and the owner is still opening up. This is where you will remain for the foreseeable future, eventually joined by others as the heat of the bus becomes intolerable. Two hours will pass and the driver won’t have even returned (so much for that plan). At some point you will start playing a convoluted version of rummy where, since none of you know the actual rules, you just make them up as you go along.

At 0830 the driver will arrive bringing two tires and an air tank to power the jack and screwdriver as well as blow up the tires. Cheers all round. At 0850 the flat, rear tire and the front tire will have been removed and everyone who was fixing the bus will have disappeared. Fortunately a minibus driver who speaks English will arrive around this time and he will explain to you that the tires they bought back (probably from Da Nang you will now realise) are the wrong size so the driver has had to go twenty five kilometres down the road in the opposite direction to buy some new ones (why couldn’t he do that to start with if it is so much closer).

Some more cards and short walk up the road to see if there is anywhere selling something that can be approximated as breakfast (there isn’t unless you count crisps) later and the driver will return with two shiny new tires. It will be 0940 when you eventually leave and 1030 when you arrive in Hoi An.

There was no need to phone the hostel the day before and ask if you could check in early after all.

Saigon

The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.

Two stores in Ben Thanh market, both selling suits for the best price.

My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.

A poster about the charity MAG. I still remember their visit from when I was in primary school.

The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.

This tank was outside of the Independence Palace. The chain didn’t seem to be doing a very good job, especially when people started climbing on it.

My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.

Roof of the Independence Palace.

The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.

Bolt hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It looks small but is surpridingly easy to fit into. 

Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.

An array of traps utilised by the south Vietnamese rebels.

I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.

A section of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.

A little motorbike chaos. Apparently around 95% of vehicles in Vietnam are of the two wheel variety.

From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.

A diorama at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.

Meet the Province

Originally I had intended to stay only one full day in Phnom Penh as it has such a bad reputation for thieves and aside from the Killing Fields and S-21 museum there isn’t a whole lot that can been seen. However, I had visited the genocide sights the day before with a couple of young women who were staying an additional day to do a tour called meet the province. Reading the leaflet, it sounded like a lot of fun and when they invited me along I eagerly accepted and extended my stay for another night.

Jiurua picked us up the next morning, and the three of us piled into her brother’s tuk tuk with her. We drove through Phnom Penh, passed the Palace which was covered in scaffolding and very gold, so just as well I had not bothered to visit. On the way we tried some fruit that looked very similar to lychees and is apparently nicknamed mens balls in Cambodian. Our first stop was a beautifully illustrated temple where Jiurua told us the story of the Buddha and about the temple and some of the festivals and events the happen around the year. She also showed us a tree, the flower of which is drank as a tea infusion by women in their fifth month of pregnancy to ensure a smooth birth.

From there we took a small ferry across the river, trying grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice and palm leaves while sitting in the small top area. On the other side of the river (or possible in the middle of it) we went to look around a small island where local women were making silk scarves and skirts. As always when it comes to anything related to sewing and fabric making I was very excited by this, especially when we got to try spinning the first thread from the silk cocoons. I the end I caved and bought a beautiful purple scarf, barely resisting getting a magnificent red one as well.

After seeing how the patterns were weaved into the skirts on the loom, something I hadn’t been able to figure at the Thai Silk Village, we headed to Jiurua’s plot of land where her sister made us a delicious lunch from a collection of home grown and local products. I am not sure which was my favourite but it was either the sliced lotus roots or the fish. Jiurua’s brother had caught the fish the night before so it was very fresh and marinated in a scrumptious sauce. I will confess that I still find fish with heads and tails attached a little disconcerting but I am definitely getting more used to them.

A short trip saw Jiurua collecting lotus flowers and fruits (also delicious and tasting like broad beans) from a large pond before we returned to her place and were shown how to fold out the lotus buds into flowers, a very therapeutic process. As we were waiting for a storm to pass (it did not rain on us but the wind meant the ferry would not be running), we all became fascinated with pulling the silky threads from the ends of the lotus stalks. Jiurua also gave us a very handsome gift of some lemongrass cuttings to try and grow when we return to our respective homes. Hopefully mine will survive long enough.

The procurement of some fresh ginger at a small local market marked the end of the tour and we were dropped off at the hostel with full stomachs and happy faces.

S-21 and the Killing Fields

I have no words that express the level of sorrow and horror I experienced walking through the S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. This post will be brief, not because I consider this a topic to be avoided but because I could never properly convey the suffering of the victims during the Cambodian Genocide. Walking through first S-21 Museum and then the Killing Fields is soul crushing.

“The Gallows” originally had ropes for children to climb in PE. When the Khmer Rouge took over, it wasn’t used for execution despite its name. Instead prisoners were hoisted into the air by their hands which had been tied behind their back. When they passed out, they were lowered and revived in jars of excrement and urine.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or more commonly S-21) was once a school. It had an outdoor exercise frame, large airy classrooms and open balconies connected the classrooms. This was a place of learning, joy and laughter, but then on 17 April 1975, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Within days the city was deserted, all its citizens forced out into the countryside at gunpoint as Pol Pot began creating his communist utopia where the peasant farmers were his “heros”.

The barbed wire across one of the balconies.

Then this school became a prison. The exercise frame was use to torture prisoners into confession; the classrooms became tiny cells, torture rooms or were left as mass cells where prisoners lay together with their feet shackled to an iron bar; the balconies were covered with barbed wire after a prisoner tried to leap from them. Now it is a museum and people come to learn once more, but joy has long since fled the grounds and now only grief remains.

A memorial for all the victims of S-21.

The Khmer Rouge systematically and purposefully destroyed the country’s economy and any connection to western capitalism. Currency was outlawed, machines were left to rust and Cambodians were put to work in farming collectives with demands for impossible yields of rice hanging over their heads. Many of them were city dwellers with no experience of how to grow crops. People quickly began to starve, grow ill and die. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge killed “intellectuals”. People who could speak another language or who had a degree or who wore glasses. Doctors, lawyers, teachers. And then their families. What was most chilling was the way prisoners were not allowed to die until a confession had been tortured from them. Only then would they be executed.

The dips here each mark where a mass grave once existed. Some graves were as deep as five metres and pieces of clothing and bone still surface to this day.

The Killing Fields were where the executions were carried out before bodies were shoved into pits. Bullets were too expensive so whatever tools on hand were used. The most common method was a strike to the back of the head followed by a slit throat. Loudspeakers played communist songs to cover the screams and a diesel generator provided the only light as prisoners were killed at night. The hardest part of the entire day was standing in front of the tree where soldiers had taken babies and toddlers by their feet and smashed their heads against a tree before they were thrown into a mass grave with their mothers.

Even the man who was in charge of S-21 and a seasoned torturer broke down and cried in front of this tree when bought to the killing fields before his trial.

Both museums were really well done but it is worth noting the audioguides are an absolute must to truly learn about the genocide. I can still feel the skulls of victims staring at me from the stupa of the Killing Fields and it will be a long time before the knowledge of the Cambodian Genocide and the 1-3 million deaths it claimed cease to haunt me.

The stupa at the Killing Fields, filled with skulls and bone fragments, stands to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but is also a reminder of what happens when the world watches a madman from the sidelines and does nothing.

Watting it out in Bangkok

On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.

The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.

A couple of stupas at Wat Pho.

Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.

Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace complex.

Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.

Some more of Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.

Wat Arun

I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.

Santa Cruz Church

From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.

The view from a bridge I crossed on my walk from Wat Arun to Santa Cruz Church.

I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).

The view from the Golden Mount.

Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.

Khao San Road.

My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.

Escaping Bangkok

Escaping Bangkok for the day, I headed up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. I caught the 0820 train up from Hua Lamphong Station, arriving just before 1000. Picking up the requisite tourist map, I hopped across the river on the small shuttle boat and rented a bicycle for the day. I could have rented a motorbike for around an extra 50 to 100 baht but decided I rather liked being attached to all my limbs. That said I probably wan’t much safer on the bicycle, the chain of which slipped every time I started from stationary and whose back brake was questionable to say the least.

The back entrance to Wat Ratchaburana.

Describing how I cycled from one picturesque red brick ruin to another incredibly similar looking ruin is rather boring so I will instead sum up a few key points of my visit.

  • Plan for the early afternoon rain shower by eating lunch as you wait for the downpour to subside. I didn’t and found myself trying to outrun the storm as I sought shelter.
  • The six temple ticket was not worth the cost as I only used it at two of the temples I visited, otherwise it was a separate entrance fee.
  • Wat Phra Si Sanphet had a back entrance with no ticket booth. As some temples were free, I didn’t realise there was a ticket booth at the front until after the fact.
  • The Ayutthaya floating market is actually a tourist attraction with a 200 baht entrance fee and an elephant riding camp right next to it. In my opinion it is not worth the visit even if it is rather scenic since the touristy wares can be found at any normal market without having to pay an entrance fee.
  • Just cycling around the the more minor roads is rather enjoyable so take the time to enjoy oneself.
  • Finally, even the tourist police, can’t read the tourist map with ease, I had three trying to help me orientate myself after getting somewhat turned around.

And now for some more pretty photos:

Wat Phra Mahathat with Wat Ratchaburana sticking up in the background.
Wat Phu Khao Thong and also the moment I realised I was about to be rained on.
Wat Si Sanphet
I’m really not sure which wat this photo belongs to. I think I just snapped the photo as I cycled past.
Wat Ratchaburana again. It was the only wat people could climb up and look inside.
The three stupas at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Bangkok to Ayutthaya trains: 20 baht each way, 40 baht total.

Bicycle rental: I cannot remember exactly but think it was 120 or 150 baht for the day with a 1000 baht (or passport) deposit

Shuttle boat across river: 5 baht

Temple entrance: Typically between 20 and 50 baht each but some are free.

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass

My day and a half trip to the Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai started off less than smoothly. I had hoped to get the boat across the river and then walk the remainder of the way to Thonburi Station. However, I was informed that there was a fifteen minute wait for the boat and Maps.me reneged on its previous prediction of a ten minute walk from the pier, instead opting for a twenty minute slog. Reluctant to push my timings, I opted to grab a taxi. This would take four minutes according to Maps.me, which steadfastly ignores the existence of traffic, or twenty minutes according to the official advice online. With just under forty minutes until the train left, this seemed a perfectly viable option.

View from the train as we left Bangkok.

Despite my best efforts to say where I wanted to go, including vigorous pointing at my map and the Roman script of the station written down, I think the taxi driver closed his ears the moment I uttered the words train station. Ah, train station! Naturally this foreigner, this white girl, could only want Hua Lamphong Station. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speak and explain where she wants to go? I will say chuu chuu to her and wave with my arms until she gives up and gets in the car. Perhaps not the politest picture to paint but if a city has more than one station, it makes sense to clarify which one is required and I fail to see how two stations on opposite sides of the city centre not to mention a river could be confused on a map.

Interior of the train.

Fortunately my lack of faith in the taxi driver meant that the moment I watched us drive straight pass the correct turning on my map, I knew we were headed for the wrong station. It took less than a minute for him to pull over and understand that I wanted Thonburi Station with me showing him exactly the same props as the first time. Imagine if he had just listened initially? Missing that crucial turning meant a long detour before we could join the major road that passes Democracy Monument and crosses over the river, all of which was spent stuck in traffic.

One of the many “stations” on our journey.

Creeping closer to the station with nose to tail traffic wreaked havoc on my nerves as I painstakingly watched the seconds tick by but thankfully we made it with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, Thai railway stations are a laid back affair and there were only a dozen or so metres between the ticket booth and train so I had plenty of time to buy my ticket to Nam Tok and board. Naturally the train did not leave for another ten minutes, but this was not a concern as I was onboard so, short of a breakdown, I would be making it to Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai eventually.

Crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai by train.

Riding the train to the end of the line was a relaxed affair as I alternated between reading and watching Thailand fly by outside the window. To visit both Hellfire Pass and the bridge within my rather constrained time limit I rode the train all the way to the end of the line in Nam Tok and visited the pass before catching a later train to return to Kanchanaburi and visit the bridge. This route meant I also rode the train across the perilous Wampo Viaduct. Watching everyone lean out of doors and windows with nothing to stop them toppling out as we crossed the sheer drop, I could not help but imagine the fit English health and safety would throw.

Travelling along the death railway. I think this section was the Wampo Viaduct.

Arriving just over half an hour late in Nam Tok gave me about two and a half hours to visit Hellfire Pass before the train left. I was initially confused as the websites I had read implied that the Pass would be right there when I disembarked however it was in fact necessary to get a taxi to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. This created another point of consternation upon my return to the station as it turned out the taxi driver who had said 300 baht for both ways, supported by his refusal to let me pay at the museum, actually meant 300 baht each way, a classic trick to pull and one I should not have fallen for but by that point it was rather too late to do otherwise without causing a scene.

Another shot looking down the outside of the train.

The Museum itself was under renovation but there were still boards to read about the plight of the 60,000 prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian labourers who were forced to work on the Burma – Thailand railway by the Japanese during the second world war. It was incredibly sobering to read about the forced marches, brutal treatment and horrendous hours worked all while the workers neared starvation and had little to no medical treatment.

Standing in Hellfire Pass, I imagined it lit with torches at night during the speedo period; listened to the hammers clanging onto the tap drills, forcing them into the rock, focusing on this rhythmic racket instead of the sounds of the guards administering a beating; smelt the caustic scent left by dynamite and exploding rock, tried to ignore the stench of festering wounds; felt the weariness and hopelessness seep into my bones, pain and gnawing hunger radiating throughout; and finally rolled the sour taste of bile and dehydration around my mouth.

Memorial plaque for prisoners of war in Hellfire Pass.

My imagination will never encompass the true suffering endured but it is enough that I will not forget the 12,399 POW and 70,000 to 90,000 civilians whose lives were lost to build the railway. I finished paying my respects to the fallen in the pass and solemnly made my way back to the train station in Nam Tok. With the misleading nature of the taxi driver and a slight cloud over my head from visiting the pass, I ended up giving the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall a miss, instead reading my book until the train back to the Bridge on the River Kwai arrived.

Hellfire Pass

The bridge was a somewhat less sombre stop, mainly due to the sheer number of tourists wandering back and forth across it and posing sitting on the tracks. I was almost surprised not to see a collection of pre-wedding photo parties claiming some of the lookout points. Nonetheless, it was an impressive feat to look at especially considering the limited materials and tools available during its building. I will confess that I remain unclear on just how much of the original bridge remains and how much has been replaced due to damage from bombs and time but to span the river was an undeniable feat of engineering.

Before walking the half hour to Kanchanaburi and my hostel, I tucked in to a particularly good plate of chicken and cashew nut stir fry at a small restaurant just off the main square. I chose it for the presence of locals (or patrons at all really) as all the other restaurants appeared to be deserted with the exception of the more expensive “floating” one on the river.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Knowing that to see both bridge and pass I would have to miss the last train to Bangkok, I had booked a hostel for the night next to to train station so I could catch the early morning train back. This resulted in an enjoyable evening where I finally got round to trying some durian, an experience I have know intention of repeating. While all bar one other in our group seemed to be able to tolerated the repulsive smelling fruit, I barely resisted the urge to throw the vile textured stuff straight back up, much to the amusement of the others. At least it can now be ticked of my somewhat cynical list of how to be a tourist backpacker in South East Asia.

The next day dawned bright and early and I and two other girls had the pleasure of a relatively on time train journey back to Bangkok. Sadly the Medical Museum, which I had intended to visit of the way back to my hostel, was closed on Tuesdays so I never did get a chance to visit it.

The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Taxi to Thonburi Station from near Khao San Road: 200 baht

All trains: 100 baht each, 300 baht total.

Taxi to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and back: 600 baht – a mistake on my part and should have been negotiated down.

Hostel in Kanchanaburi: 220 baht

George Town to Bangkok by Sleeper Train

A hold over from my childhood and being island bound by fog or mechanical failure is that whenever I am changing locations, I obsessively leave as much time as possible between legs of my journey. Second leg an evening flight? No problem. I’ll get an early morning flight, barely restraining myself from catching the red eye, for the first leg.

Travelling in South East Asia it takes a certain level of self control not to take this to a whole new level with the constant delays and borderline horror stories passed by word of mouth down the traveller grapevine. There is always a friend of a friend of a guy someone met who got stranded next to a rice paddy somewhere.

The ferry from George Town to Butterworth.

Hence, I set out for Bangkok early on the day of my departure. I arrived at the ferry terminal from George Town to Butterworth around 0930 (apparently free in the George Town to Butterworth direction). By the time the “regular” ferry arrived in Butterworth it was 1030 and the “hourly” KTM Komuter train up to Padang Besar would not be leaving for another two hours. Finally boarding the train, I flopped into a seat and devoured my book until we eventually pulled into Pedang Besar station some time around two.

Navigating the border crossing was confusing, purely from the point of view that I and the small pack of other foreign travellers had no clue where we were going. Did we walk across the land border and find a different train station on the other side? Or were we somehow supposed to navigated the unmanned Malaysian and Thai border boxes on the floor below the canteen?

Seats on the sleeper train.

Eventually, we scraped together a vaguely straight answer that we were to wait until the boxes opened and then pass through the Malaysian and Thai boxes at the opposite ends of the ground floor. Next came another wait for the sleeper train that would carry us to all the way to Bangkok (naturally it was delayed by just under an hour). I passed the time playing card games with a lovely Swedish chap.

A few more games and dinner on the train passed the few hours before we turned in for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Just as we were leaving for the somewhat rickety dinner cart, the steward came through and converted each booth into a set of bunk beds, complete with pillow and blanket. While not huge, the top bunk was fine for my vertically challenged nature and I managed not to fall out despite only two straps to prevent me from doing so.

Upper bunk on the sleeper train to Bangkok. Not the anti fall out of bed strap.

The next morning, the beds were converted back to seats and I tucked into my somewhat squashed roll that had travelled from a 7-Eleven in George Town with me the day before. Only about an hour and a bit late we were making good time into Bangkok when disaster struck. Driving through a cross between building site and railway siding the train suddenly shuddered to a halted to the accompaniment of much shouting and gesturing from some workers.

View from the window as we waited to start off again.

No information provided, we waited on the outskirts of Bangkok unsure if we were going to have to walk the remainder of the way. Eventually the passengers in the last coach relocated to ours, before theirs was disconected and we rolled back into motion. We finally made it to our Hua Lamphong Station only three hours late, so all in all, very good time was made.

On the orange flag boat to Khao San Road.

A twenty minute walk to boat stop N3 and we got the boat up to near Khao San Road (N13) and out respective hostels.

Ferry from George Town to Butterworth: free

Train Butterworth to Pedang Besar: RM11.40

Train Pedang Besar to Bangkok: 870 Baht for a top bunk plus a online booking fee of around 30 baht

Boat (orange flag fixed fare): 15 Baht