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.

The DMZ

I was the first to board the bus and it was another 40 minutes before we picked up anyone else. I passed the time by admiring Seoul as it began to awaken. Having picked up another five people, we switched to a larger tour bus and made our way towards the boarder.

Outside the entry point to the military controlled area, we looked at the Freedom Bridge, Peace Bell and an old locomotive engine from the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The Freedom Bridge is where North and South Korean POW were exchanged after the war while the Peace Bell and a number of other pieces express the Korean people’s deep desire for their country to be reunited. Unification is a major theme of our tour as our guide points out Unification Village, Unification Bridge and so on.

After having our passports checked, our first stop in the DMZ was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, built by the North Koreans into South Korea. After descending the steep access tunnel, we were able to walk along the main tunnel until we reach the third barrier wall that blocks the tunnel on the South Korean side. At this point I stood only 160m from the boarder and it was most likely the closest I will ever be to North Korea. Here pictures were not allowed so just picture a cold and rough hewn granite tunnel (though warmer than the surface) with a concrete wall blocking it. In the wall is a small window and a rusted door.

Managing not to bash my head on the low ceiling, I retreated to the surface and the tour moved on to the observation tower. It felt weird sitting on a tour bus and being driven everywhere after so long being my own tour guide or only taking part in the occasional free walking tour. Fortunately it seems my poor visibility curse remained in Hong Kong and the observation tower offered amazing views of North Korea. Our guide pointed out the various details, from real and fake villages to two flag poles on opposite sides of the boarder which use to compete to be the tallest until the South gave up.

Out final stop in the DMZ was Dorasan Station. This train station sits on a line that runs through the entire Korean peninsula, eventually connecting to China. While trains do not currently run between the North and South, the rest of the line is in use and it was once again apparent just how much the South wishes to be reunited with the North.

Our final stop was at a ginseng information centre where we were enthusiastically told about the growing process and the various medical benefits of the six year old ginseng, as opposed to less mature ginseng, which can only be purchased in South Korea.

Hitting the Ground Walking in Seoul

My first impression of Seoul is cold. Cold enough to wake me up from my midnight flight state of foggy sleep deprivation. After making it through immigration and retrieving my bag, I’m quick to pull out warm coat, hat, gloves and scarves (yes, plural scarves) before continuing any further. Clearly my body has forgotten what it is like to be in a cold climate after being spoilt by the year round high temperatures and humidity of Singapore. Especially when the cold temperatures in question are hovering below zero and hardened snow still lines the roads.

Land-side, I immediately run into the roadblock of none of the ATMs working for me. This is an issue I occasionally run into with some banks overseas, particularly when the exchange rates differ by a number of decimal places. Normally the quick and easy solution is to go to the next ATM along and, provided it belongs to a different bank, one is in with a fighting chance of managing to take out some cash. If not, rinse and repeat until one encounters success. At most airports there is a whole line up of ATMs, so it is just a case of trial and error to find a bank that works. Unfortunately for me, every ATM in Incheon Airport belongs to the same bank and it did not like my account. Hence I was forced to convert my leftover Sing Dollar at the currency exchange, most frustrating.

This inconvenience over, I purchased my travel card and made my way to my hostel. On the subway I had a lovely chat with a game designer about this, that and the other. It was a nice pick me up after the trauma of my ATM adventure. Parting ways, I took shelter in the subway station while I waited for the hostel reception to open. Backpack safely stowed, I ventured back into the subway armoured with some coffee and a target destination.

I started off by heading to Changdeokgung Palace just in time for the 1130 English speaking tour around the Secret Garden. This section of the palace can only be seen by tour as they are trying to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I was pleased that my timings lined up perfectly. The dusting of snow that lingered on some rooftops added a beautiful picturesque feel to the whole day. Iced over ponds complimented the wintery feel and after I had finished looking around, I was relieved to take shelter in a café to warm up and eat a late lunch.

After defrosting slightly, I made my to Unhyeongong Palace. This was much smaller, but had a few rooms laid out and mannequins in traditional dress performing various tasks. I was particularly excited to get a closer look at the chimneys and firebox systems called ondols that were used in a historic version of underfloor heating.

Taking a break from palaces and with the weather a few degrees not as cold, I wandered through the traditional Hanok Village of Bukchon. As I tried to outpace various tour groups and hambok wearing tourists, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the residents that have to listen to our racket all day. If I had had a little more time to plan, I may have stayed to try some of the traditional artwork workshops offered in some of the hanoks.

Back on my palace tour and I headed over to the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was very different to the previous two, with a more rigid layout that didn’t flow with the natural landscape in the same way that Changdeokgung palace does. The majority of it has also had to have been rebuilt in recent years due to its past relocations to Japan and various fires. To use a concept from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I felt these building lacked historicity. The replicas do not hold the same soul as their originals. Of course this may be because perfectly straight edges in a historical building are practically unheard of, with time wearing smooth all things and fading paint so that we forget that these haunts were also new once upon a time.

I wrapped up my tour with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and returned to the thawing warmth of the hostel to spend a pleasant evening with the other guests. Overall today has left me extremely impressed with the South Korean government who are making a consertive effort to restore, rebuild and rejuvenate the history and culture of Korea, both with the palaces and the hanoks. Too often today, people are all too eager to leave the past behind, forgetting that the Old can hold just as much beauty, intrigue and life as the New.

Off Again

To say the last month has been stressful is an understatement. When I haven’t been studying for a slew of end of semester tests and exams, I have been arranging my Christmas travels in more detail. While some of this planning was no more complicated than logging on to Hostel World and choosing the perfect balance between cost, location and amenities, other sections have proven to be more challenging. Fortunately, the worst of it is over and I can now enjoy my holiday.

I’ve started the Christmas holidays off with a stop in Hong Kong and have certainly enjoyed my first day here, though my feet are glad to be resting. I started the day off by teaming up with another girl from my hostel and going on a walking tour of the central area. Rather than focusing on traditional sights the tour provided an insight into the history of Hong Kong and its politics. The tour guide was wonderfully cheerful and well informed, including telling us where to get the best wanton noodles for lunch after the tour was over.

My favourite piece of history was about a feng shui war between the Bank of China and HSBC headquarters, as well as seeing the two lions, Stephen and Stitt outside the HSBC headquarters.

With full stomachs we rushed back over to Kowloon on MTR and headed up to Mong Kok and Prince Edwards for another tour, this one focusing on some of the social challenges faced by locals. In particular we learnt about the astoundingly high property prices and rents and how the local economy is so dependant on the maintenance of these high costs. For me, I found the existence on coffin houses where people live in cages or bunk boxes stacked upon one another and little bigger than a dog crate particularly shocking. Especially when the rent is between HK$1800 and HK$2500 a month.

After this rather gloomy though important tour a group of us headed off to sample the delights of a dim sum restaurant. I felt the Michelin Star of Tim Ho Wan was well deserved as the food was absolutely delicious and I won’t need to eat for a few years. A lovely pair of Canadian sisters knew all the best things to try and the conversation proved lively and stimulating so it was a shame to part ways.

We concluded the day with a trip on the Star Ferry and watched a somewhat anticlimactic “A Symphony of Lights” over Victoria Harbour.

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.