Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay

From the moment I decided I was going to Hanoi, I knew that I had to cram in a day trip to Ha Long Bay with its rocky karsts that rise imperiously from the water.  Rather than booking onto a tour in advance, I decided to wait until I arrived in Hanoi.  Hence, after my walking tour I found myself sitting in the common area of the hostel, surrounded by cigarette smoke and scrolling though internet page after internet page about the best way to visit Ha Long Bay.

Recurring themes began to appear:  you have to go, lots of tourist boats, and be careful of super budget tours as safety isn’t always a priority.  The first point I already knew, the second I was a tad worried about but knew it was the off-season, and, as a sea-faring soul, the third concerned me deeply.  Eventually I stumbled across a blog post by Budget Travel Talk that sung of the advantages of visiting Lan Ha Bay instead. It is the same karst rock formation but falls under the jurisdiction of a different province and is not nearly as crammed with tourist boats. At that moment, in the way that coincidences often happen (may the spirits of chance forever look favourably upon me), I looked up just as the hostel’s propaganda information screen showed off their cocktail cruise to, you guessed it, Lan Ha Bay.

Well who am I to ignore signs.  The hostel trip was cheaper than most two day one night tours to Ha Long Bay because it stayed on the tour provider’s island, Cát Ȏng, rather than sleeping on board and it was focused in Lan Ha Bay so didn’t have the same tourist saturation to drive up prices.  Futhermore, even with low price there would still be the opportunity to hike on Cát Bà island, swim in the sea and kayak among the karsts so I saw no reason not to sign on to the next day’s tour.

The tour bus picked everyone up from their hostels the next day, thankfully at a late enough hour that I had a chance to make the most of the hostel’s free breakfast.  On a side note, I am never going to get used to English watermelon and pineapple after the deliciously ripe versions of the fruits I eat on a regular basis here in Singapore.  The bus journey provided a nice opportunity to catch up on sleep and see a little of the Vietnamese countryside (rice paddies and roadworks).  Suddenly, over the flat horizon the tall rocky hills of Ha Long City rise up.  However, it was not to them that we headed.  Instead we drove to Cát Hẚi Island, part of Hai Phong City.  From where we set out on our six hour cruise among the thousands of islands of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

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The lovely smog and dust cloud over mainland Vietnam.  Fortunately it disappeared as we got in among the rocky karsts.

We were extremely fortunate that the rain of the previous day had cleared up and we were left with beautiful blue skies as we ventured through the karsts.  Something everyone on the cruise really appreciated was the lack of other boats.   I think this was mainly because we were in the less visited Lan Ha Bay for most of the cruise but I expect visiting in the off season also helped.

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A typical Vietnamese lunch was provided on the middle deck about an hour into the cruise.  Our guide seemed confused when we asked for more of the tasty chili sauce, checking several times we wanted more of the chili sauce before getting it.

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We moored at this floating pontoon to go kayaking.  I don’t trust myself with anything electronic in close proximity to water so don’t have any photos of this part of the cruise but can assure you, my dear reader, that it was a huge amount of fun.  We went through a couple of cave tunnels where stalactites reached down to the water and bats screeched up in the shadows before stopping in a little lagoon to try and see the white headed langur monkeys.  Unfortunately, even our guide’s hand whistling couldn’t tempt them to appear.  However, the break did give my arms a chance to recover slightly so I can’t complain.

The only downside to the kayaking was that we were close enough to the karsts to see just how much rubbish had washed ashore.  Over the duration of the cruise, I found the amount of rubbish we saw floating around, most noticeably in the Ha Long Bay section, really saddening.  I knew that this would be the case before we set out however it was still a shock to see.

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We had a huge amount of fun leaping from the roof of the boat into the blue depths below by this little island.  No one swam to the beach but it was lovely to be swimming in the sea again and cheering for everyone to jump in.

As previously mentioned, we spent the night on Cát Ȏng island.  We all stayed together in one of the dorms rather than in the little cottages.  All the food was included in the trip, and there was certainly a lot of it, particularly at the evening meal.  The “starter” buffet table alone had enough for everyone to eat their fill.

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Nothing beats a full stomach and midnight campfire after a blissful day at sea.

The next day, we paid an extra $10 to take a little boat over to Cát Bà island and climb hike through Cát Bà National Park to Ngu Lam Peak.  The hike wasn’t too strenuous in  and of itself, it was just the heat at the jungle floor that had us wishing for the end.  However, the view we had once we reached the top was definitely worth it and was made all the sweeter by the effort we had put in.  Oh woe is me *dramatically faints at the thought of exerting oneself*

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Having scaled the mountain *strikes dramatic pose of victory* and while waiting for our bus, I took the opportunity to try drinking straight from a coconut, a beverage that every man and his dog had been trying to sell to me since I arrived in Cambodia at the beginning of the week.  While it was nice enough, I think I will continue with water unless someone starts spiking the coconuts with rum.   Eventually our bus returned and we were driven to our final lunch before getting the ferry and bus back to Hanoi.

All in all, a very fun cocktail cruise and tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay where ironically everyone’s least favourite part was the cocktails.

Hanoi

Arriving at Hanoi Rocks Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am immediately taken by the music themed interior and sold when I meet the hostel’s resident cats.  With little planned for the next day, I signed on to the free walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter tour the hostel offered.

We started off by walking to Hoan Kiem Lake.  This roughly translates as lake of the returned sword and is said to be where the Emperor Lê Lơi returned the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, to the Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui.  I have to say with this story and the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend I begin to detect an interesting premise for conspiracy.

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We had a look and the Hanoi Opera House but then the skies opened so we went and ate ice cream and looked around a fancy mall until it stopped raining.

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Our next stop was St Joseph Cathedral.  Despite the infusion of French influence throughout the Old Quarter, the cathedral still seemed very severe and out of place next to cheerfully painted façades and balconies overflowing with plants.

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There is something so refreshing about cities filled with the vibrant green of nature.

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With the tour over, we sat down on the pavement to enjoy lunch.  This proved to be an interesting mix of chopsticks and fingers.  I would love to see an English food inspector’s face at these delightful open fronted cafes and restaurants.

Angkor Temples #2

Day two rolled around and after an very early start to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we began our trip around what we thought was going to be the grand circuit.  The map below shows the small circuit, which we had done the previous day, in red and the grand circuit in yellow.  However, as we set off, the trees and temples fell away to be replaced with rice paddies and cultivated fields.  After about forty-five minutes it was pretty clear that we weren’t following the grand circuit.  Despite a slight worry that we were being taken to the floating village on Tonlé Sap, somewhere our driver had tried to persuade us to visit the day before, we sat back and enjoyed the passing scenery.

angkor circuits
Map taken from here.

Fortunately for us and our laid-back attitudes, we eventually arrived at Banteay Srei, a temple well outside the most well-known parts of the Angkor Temple Complex.

In part because of the early hour and also the temple’s remote location there were very few tourists.  This was not the only reason for Banteay Srei being my favourite temple.  As can be seen above, the carvings in the walls of the temple and over doorways was absolutely exquisite.  The details were marvellously preserved and the temple was a little smaller so we were able to explore it thoroughly.  We also to the opportunity to sit down and eat out breakfast just outside the temple.

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Over the years, thanks to the hard work of looters, vandals and time, a lot of statues are missing their heads.  I just couldn’t resist standing in to do the job for this Devas as he pulled on the Nāga Vasuki to help churn the Ocean of Milk.

Preah Khan provided another fix for my love of taking photos down corridors, they just seemed to go on forever.  While a lot of the temple was falling down there were still some extremely detailed carvings intact.  It also felt very tranquil in comparison to some of the other temples.

This little gate pavilion at Neak Pean reminded me of the entrance to the river Styx in Greek Mythology, a feeling underscored by the walk across a lake of dead trees to reach the island temple.

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A lot of the Angkor temples seem to have a similar architectural structure whereby four smaller buildings surround a central building or peak as shown here at Pre Rup.  This layout was normally at the centre or top of the temples and then surrounded by a series of galleries.

Angkor Temples #1

The wonderful thing about travelling solo through hostels is that the opportunities to meet new people are endless and there is something freeing about hanging out with a group for a week, a day, or even just an hour with no commitment to be friends beyond that time frame.  You can see the sights, drink together and share tales of adventure but at the end of the day you go your separate ways, a mere paragraph in each other’s lives.  The drinking together is particularly apparent since hostels seem to have free beer more often than they have free water.

Anyway, temple viewing day one dawned bright and early and I set out with the three people I had agreed to share a driver with.  We knew we were doing the small circuit which visited the big three temples; Angkor Wat, our second visit here but our first opportunity to see all of it; Bayon Temple with its many faces; and Ta Prohm, slowly being reclaimed by nature.  However, we had little idea what else to expect.  You can read about our three visits to Angkor Wat here so I’ll skip straight to Bayon Temple.

 

Bayon Temple is one of the must-see temples when visiting the Angkor temples.  It’s covered in these faces that look out over the mass of tourists that come to visit every day.  With their little half smiles, I couldn’t help but think that the statues knew more than they let on.  Just what have they seen?

 

Like Angkor Wat, Baphuon Temple has a long causeway to walk up before you enter the temple.  It definitely seems like a good way to humble the lowly visitor.  It originally had a huge tower on the top but I kind of like these four arches, they make me think of magical portals to lost worlds.

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Mr Bunna, our tuk tuk driver pulled over on the side of the road so we could take photos of a group of monkeys.  I just couldn’t resist taking a photo of this guy chilling on a motorbike.

 

I’ve always found taking photos through holes or down tunnels irresistible and visiting the temples certainly provided a lot of opportunities for me to do so with, arched corridors, doorways and collapsed roofs.

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These seven headed snakes are used as balustrades throughout the Angkor Temple Complex.  They represent a reptilian race, the Nāga. In particular the king of snakes, Vasuki, who was used to help churn the Ocean of Milk by wrapping around Mount Meru.  Artisans Angkor have a really good description of this piece of mythology.

 

Used as a set in Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm has not escaped the Cambodian jungle’s grasp.  Without a moat to protect it from invading trees, parts of this temple have been reclaimed by nature.  The real trick though was trying to get a photo of the beautiful trees in the split second between everyone having their photo taken directly in front of the marvellous interlocking roots.  We were particularly unfortunate and managed to arrive at the same time as a large (and very loud) tour group but did find a moment of quite in one courtyard, at least for a couple of minutes.

Arriving in Siem Reap

After just over an hour of queuing, filling in forms and queuing to fill in forms, I make it land side in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  With no luggage to collect, I head outside and hire a tuk tuk to take me to my hostel.  Speeding madly along, I make multiple grabs for the convenient roof handle so as not to be launched headfirst from the tuk tuk into the sea of motorbikes, half of which are pulling trailers loaded with varyious goods and people.  Despite this, I can’t help grinning in exhilaration as the wind whips my face.  My grin becomes particularly Cheshire every time we overtake another tourist laden tuk tuk.

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We make it to the hostel in one piece, and I arrange to be picked up at 4 o’clock to see Angkor Wat at sunset and to have my driver, Mr Bunna, for the next two days.  Price agreed on, I check into the hostel and try to decide what to do until 4 o’clock.  While I was planning, I spoke to a few people about what to do and asked if anyone wanted to join me on my temple adventures.  Unfortunately, everyone had either already booked on to a tour or had other plans so as the skies opened, I set out to the Angkor National Museum to escape the rain.

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The roads had magically turned into rivers, with a good four or five inches of water covering them in some places.  I was mercifully shielded from the rain by the rain covers which rolled down all around the tuk tuk.  The ticket to the museum was US$12 which I felt was a little steep, but that may be the student in me talking.  Nonetheless it proved to be extremely interesting reading about the history of Angkor Wat, the main focus of the museum.  I certainly learnt enough facts to appears vaguely knowledgeable later that day.  I was particularly impressed with the detailed 3D model on the temple.

Something I feel it is important to note if one intends to travel to Siem Reap and see the Angkor Temples is that the Angkor Archaeological Park ticketing and Angkor National Museum are privately owned and it is unclear how much of the profits are fed back into the Cambodian economy or spent on restoring and preserving the temples.  I did find one article suggesting that the government now controls the ticketing but even so most restoration money comes from foreign aid.  While, this isn’t a reason not to visit, it is important to be aware of such things.  Personally, I elected to stay at the Mad Monkey Hostel which has a number of programs that help locals.

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From the National Museum, I headed to the War Museum.  This has a wide range of old guns and tanks from the Vietnam war and Cambodian Civil War as well as information about some of the atrocities which were committed during them.  It was possible to hire a guide for free, all of whom were either war veterans, eye witnesses of the war or landmine victims.  The museum presented an insight into the last thirty years of the 20th century for Cambodia and I was once again left wishing that schools taught history outside of their country’s influence because how could we not be taught about this? Museums like this are a part of the reason that travelling can reduce and eradicate prejudice, because knowing history helps us to learn from it.

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Feeling a little small, I headed back to the hostel and persuaded the driver that no, I did not need a tuk tuk tomorrow.  With that I began to plot how to corral someone into joining my temple tour and so divide the cost of the driver.  I was also determined to make some temporary holiday friends since one of my study year abroad goals is to learn to overcome my introverted nature and meet new people.  Fortunately for me, at that moment a group of unsuspecting students arrived and I was able to help them avoid the “stress and trauma” of planning by inviting them to see the temples with me.

Eventually 4 o’clock rolled around and we set out to explore…

Angkor Wat

 We visited Angkor Wat three times in total; once when we attempted to watch the sunset but were forced to leave because it was closing; the second time we took the back entrance but were forced to share the temple with hundreds of other tourists, all clamouring for photos; the final time for a somewhat anticlimactic sunrise.  Despite these not fully successful endeavours I was astounded by the shear effort and patience that must have gone into creating such an amazing and beautifully carved triumph of ancient architecture.

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This was my first glimpse of the temple.  The long walk certainly gives one plenty of time to mull over its grandeur, I wonder what visitors thought of it 800 years ago.

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My version of the classic temple reflection photo after deciding that I didn’t fancy vying with the crowds to use one of the ponds on either side of the walkway.

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Unlike most other Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west not east.  This is thought to either be because it is dedicated to Vishnu or because it was intended to be the resting place of the Khmer King Suryavarman II who had it built.  This was the best shot of the sunset I managed to take before the whistles of the guards drove us back to our tuk tuk.

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At least everyone leaving meant some nice (relatively) tourist free photos.

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What’s a trip to the temples of Siem Reap without a few monks?

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Seemingly every surface save the floor is engraved in breath-taking detail.  I was particularly impressed with the engraving of the story of how the gods’ and demons’ quest for the elixir of immortality led to the churning of the sea of milk and the creation of the cosmos.

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Why take the public steps when you could take the Indiana Jones route?  Or as my German friend liked to shout, “TEMPLE RUN!”

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The best photo from our sunrise outing and I have to admit, my camera made it look considerably better than it was.

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Since we were at the temple early we planned to try and make it up to the very top of the temple as the queue had been too long the previous day.  However, it was not be as we would have had to wait a further forty minutes for the central stairs to open.  Fortunately, I at least got this rather nice photo before the sun was too bright, causing all my other photos to have blindingly white skies.

The Trials and Tribulations of Planning

Two or three weeks ago I stuck my head out of my textbooks long enough to realise that recess week was fast approaching and I had yet to form a plan of which country I was going to intrepidly explore.  After a few minutes of trying to wrap my head around the fact that my recess week is before most of my cohorts return to studying and that in their first week back I would be taking two of my midterms, I actually started planning.  Like anyone nowadays, my first (and only) port of call was the internet.  The internet is an amazing resource for anyone who so much as dreams of travelling as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.  It is also the bane of all holiday planners as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.

You see, it’s all very well and good saying “I’ll go to such and such a place” but then you bring up BBC news and decide that perhaps that particular location can wait a while or you pick a country but are then bombarded with choices as to where in that country you should go.  In the end, I narrowed my list of seven countries down to two by touring TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Pinterest.  My methods of elimination also included a quick check of Gov.uk for any travel warnings; Travel Health Pro for vaccination advice; and a slew of websites to try and interpret what visas were need for where.

All in all, there was a moment where I was tempted to can the entire venture and just relax on a beach in some tourist trap for a week.  However, I persevered and chose a location in each of country to spend the week.  I’m not sure they are any less tourist trappy but I like to pretend they are.  After the hard part of making a decision.  I only had to work out how to get there; what I needed for visas; where I was going to stay; and what I was actually going to do.  Fortunately for the modern traveller this is made easy with the help of websites like Skyscanner, HostelWorld and the multitude of travel bloggers who have gone before.

So without further ado, the winners of this semester’s recess week holiday awards are…

…Siem Reap in Cambodia:

Siem Reap

I am particularly looking forward to the temples of Angkor Wat, though the Night Market and Landmine Museum have also caught my eye.

And…

…Hanoi in Vietnam:

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As well as seeing the thriving Old Quarter here, I am hoping to cram in a day trip to the famous Halong Bay.

With only seven kilos of luggage, my laptop will be staying here in Singapore so posting may be varied but at the very least I hope to put a few photo heavy posts up.  Fingers crossed and happy travelling.

And so it Begins

Leaving home is never easy, the packing alone is enough to make one shudder in horror, but to fly halfway around the world with only a vague idea of when one will return is even harder.  At some point between the 132 miles to Bath and the 6885 miles to Singapore there is a line where the prospect of going away becomes exponentially more terrifying.  This fear does not diminish the excitement buzzing through my veins.  However, it does produce a few tears as I say goodbye to my parents at the airport.  

Boarding the plane in the fog I consider how there was a time when this would have delayed my plane, but now it seems not an issue.  Perhaps there is a part of me that wishes the flight would be delayed, if only to halt the approaching unknown for a little longer.  The plane charges down the runway and begins to climb steeply through brightening white.  I stare out the window for the moment when we will erupt into the ever changing but increasingly familiar cloudscape that accompanies so many flights.  As always, my anxiety melts away with the start of my journey.  Undoubtedly  it will return on occasion but for now I am content to stare out the window and read my book as the plane to Gatwick soars on.

I spend the night in Heathrow’s Yotel, a small hotel chain that draws their inspiration from Japanese pod hotels. Each cabin is complete with a bed, bathroom area and a small pull out table.  Singapore noodles seem the most fitting food on offer from reception so I tuck into the warm meal in my small but comfortable cabin. An early night sees me prepared for an early start and I drag my suitcases to Terminal 3 in time to catch my flight.

There is little to be said for most flights; they are crowded, loud and difficult to sleep on. Furthermore, when one finally does asleep, they are abruptly awoken by turbulence, someone needing the toilet or for food.  The one enjoyment of my flights to Singapore was the opportunity to fly on an Airbus A380, seemingly a trivial matter but still something to cross off the bucket list.

As we finally touch down in Singapore, I am filled with nerves and I can’t help but think to myself “what have you done now? Flying all the way to Singapore to study physics! Bath was perfectly acceptable” but life is about pushing oneself above and beyond normal comfort levels in order to improve and grow. So I may be tired and missing home but instead I chose to think of the adventures to come and the stories to discover.