Russian beaches

Russian beaches
Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang, Vietnam


We arrived at 6am at the station in Nha Trang. The corridors played a weird local style of music 20 minutes before the stop. Our CEO came to wake us up. Soo tired. A bus took us from the train to the hotel, where our rooms weren’t due to be ready until 11. They had a spare room with some bunks in it, which some of the group quickly took up. I snoozed on the couch until our CEO took us to breakfast, at a restaurant along the beach. It was a very modern place, lovely bar area, and served very western dishes – like my eggs benedict, mango smoothie, and I also ordered a Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk to get a taste of the famed beans here. The eggs were paired with asparagus and parma ham, very strong flavours, but it worked so well. Yum! The bill was quite expensive for Vietnam, and I found that for the whole town. There is an island owned by Russians nearby, and the whole town was filled with Russian tourists. We surmised that they spent a lot of money here and hence the prices on everything were higher than usual. A couple of girls got their room before ours, so we crashed their shower and freshened up. The others went to the beach, but I decided no more sun, and stayed in the room for a nap. Dinner was at an Italian restaurant. One of the guys ordered chicken parmigiana expecting Australian style schnitzel with topping. Instead he got a kind of moussaka lasagne thing in a hot pot. Oops. The next day, I slept too late and missed breakfast. So I went to get brunch and ended up having poached eggs on toast, reading a book I bought in Cambodia about the Khmer Rouge. I went back to the hotel to pack up and checkout and caught up with a couple of girls from the group, so we went for afternoon tea, and sat sipping iced mochas and talking until it was time to meet the group for dinner. After dinner, we got some snacks and then got a bus to the train station for our overnight train… Again. This train was a little older, but we were used to the idea now.


War history – claustrophobic tunnels

War history – claustrophobic tunnels
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


6am breakfast, which was baguette and omelette made by our homestay. Then a quick tour of the village. Because of the wet weather, the paths we a bit muddy. The clay caked to the bottom of my flip flops and suctioned with every step. In trying to lift my shoe, one of the plugs came loose, so I walked most of the tour barefoot. The tour ended at the boat, and we went to the floating market. It was a wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. Other boats moored to ours to sell us drinks, but otherwise it was pretty peaceful. The sellers had huge barges of pineapples or watermelon. Some of the buyers had shallower, more open boats, piled with their haul for the day. On the way back, I took the wheel of the boat for a bit. Then 4 hour bus onto Ho Chi Minh city. We walked to a place close to the hotel for lunch – they only served pho. My beef pho was delicious, but I put in a little too much chilli at one point and got a mouthful of spice when I bit into a slice. Then we went on a walking tour to the Opera House, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Ben Thanh market. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped into a coffee shop to sample real Vietnamese coffee. An Aussie I had met in Nepal raved about it, so it was on the to taste list. I had a chocolate ice coffee – very smooth. I want to try the iced with condensed milk next time. A little free time before dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I opted for banh uot thit nurong – beef and lettuce wrapped in rice noodles. That is definitely one to make at home. It was a delicious fresh light meal. Afterward we went to a sports bar for the boys to watch Manchester United soccer game. I ended up in a deep and meaningful with my roommate, before heading home at midnight. Breakfast at the hotel, and packed to check out, some of us hopped a bus for an optional tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. The information seemed particularly biased against Americans and the non-communists – such is history, I suppose. The story is only told by the victors. My favourite was a introductory video that showed “the sweet and gentle school girl … who received an award as an American killer…” Do they even hear themselves? I must admit, the Viet Cong (communists) were very smart in the way they waged war with the gun slinging, bomb touting American forces. They were outgunned, so they were sneaky and covert in their dealings. I have to admire the way they outsmarted a lot of the efforts of the Republic (non communist). Complex systems of narrow tunnels with water locks, crawl areas, dead ends, and many levels of depth, including access to the Siagon river. And the access to the tunnels was so well fortified and hidden, I can only imagine the frustration of the opposing soldiers. I went into the trap door style entrances and crawled through the 100m tunnels designed to show tourists how cramped and tiny the spaces were. And these were widened versions of the original, and it was still very close and humid. No one with claustrophobia could stand it, I’m sure. Bus back to the war museum, But we got some banh mi from a street vendor before we went into the building. I was looking forward to it so much! It tasted okay, but I think the best kind is served in a restaurant, which seems to be a rare thing. It appears to be exclusively a street food here. Never mind. Inside there were horrific pictures of the GIs during the war and what Agent Orange had done to local people and their families. Children born with deformities and sever learning difficulties. So sad. The cruelty of the soldiers was pretty awful to see. It started raining when we were inside the museum, so we piled into a taxi to get back to the hotel. Then, an overnight train! I was a bit worried because of my experiences in India and Madrid were not the best, but it was fine! Four to a bay, with a lockable door. The beds were wide enough, with individual lights, and clean sheets on both the base and a flat sheet. Even little fake flowers. Awww. Toilets were far better than the squat, aluminium, reeking of urine ones in India – Western, porcelain, relatively tidy. I fell asleep fairly early, the rocking of the train lulling me into slumber.


Good evening Vietnam

Good evening Vietnam
Tieu Can District, Vietnam

Tieu Can District, Vietnam


7:30am start for a 4 hour bus ride to the Vietnamese border, and another 5 hours to our homestay along the Mekong Delta. We arrived as the sun was setting, so we missed the guided walk through the village. Tomorrow instead. Our beds are in an open space under a tin roof and mosquito nets. The family are very cute. They cooked us pork pancake, pumpkin soup (chunks of pumpkin in broth), stir fried meats, rice, and garlic beans. Soo good. I tried to find out the ingredients in the pancakes, as they demonstrated how to cook them in front of us. But they seemed hedging about it, which is such a shame… I really want to cook it at home. Early night for us, as a bright early start to visit the floating markets.


Beaches of Cambodia

Beaches of Cambodia
Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Cambodia


Hurried breakfast, and then on the bus for 4 hours to Sihanoukville. We walked to the beachside to have lunch, overlooking the umbrellas and lounge chairs on the sand. I had a piña colada and an anaemic burger. After eating, we wandered down to the lounges, had a dip, and ordered more drinks until late afternoon. Back to the room to get changed and have an hour downtime before heading back to the same restaurant where they served BBQ fresh seafood. I had two crabs – their bodies the size of my fist. The meat was so sweet and fresh, it was amazing for just US $7. There were parties going on at most of the restaurants along the beachfront so we wandered up and down looking for a crowd. No dice. It was really dead. We gave up about 10pm and went back. In the morning, we bought some breakfast and snacks from a minimart and went back to the same restaurant to pick up tickets to board the speed boat to Koh Rong island. There was a mix up, so instead, we caught a slow boat. It was leisurely and much better I thought, because we could lounge and relax underneath the canopy instead of being crammed in a seat. We set ourselves up on the sand, and had a quick dip. The water was clear and a lovely turquoise colour. Cold currents were coming in from deeper waters, but it was warm otherwise. Then reading on the sand for a bit, until the afternoon storm started gathering. It did no more than spit, but we walked towards the restaurants to await our boat back. The other girls were looking a bit red by the end of the day, particularly my roommate, who had spent most of the boat ride over lying on the deck plus the time we had spend on the beach. We arrived back in the dark and went back to the room. Pommie skin doesn’t do the best in the sun, but she was bright red poor thing. Her stomach was the worst. I was glowing a bit on my cheeks and neck, but it settled down quickly. For dinner, we went somewhere different, and I had green curry, which was kind of like amok, and a cheesy garlic bread.


Tarantulas and mass graves

Tarantulas and mass graves
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


A late start at 11:30, we were transported to the bus station where we took a coach 7 hours to Phnom Penh. The boys from Western Australia were having a few beers and getting a bit rowdy. I was hoping to get some travel diary done, but I listened to music, slept and watched a movie on my ipad instead. We arrived at 7pm, and got a shuttle to our hotel. 10 mins to get settled and we headed to dinner up the road at a cafe. Our CEO warned us to keep hold of our bags because it was common to have snatching and pick pockets as this is the capital and tourists were commonly targeted. After dinner, we had a brief walking tour to show us the river side and some of the decorations for the king’s birthday. The next morning, we got going at 8am to go to Tuol Sleng, code named S-21, a former high school, transformed into a prison and torture facility during the Khmer Rouge regime, headed by Pol Pot. Grey concrete buildings, three storeys tall, the balconies covered with razor wire, surround a quadrangle grassed yard. Inside, orange and white 70s checked tile on the floors, stained with large dark marks…. I shudder to think what it might be. Any intellectuals, anyone with glasses, smooth hands (indicating wealth) and all their families were captured, held, chained to beds, with a bullet case for a toilet. They were tortured by ripping off their fingernails, flogged with barbed wire, salt and chilli rubbed into the wounds, chained upside down to a frame in quadrangle until they passed out, and then dipped head first into filthy water which would revive them enough to continue their interrogation. Once they had revealed their colleagues and families, they were taken to mass graves in the killing fields. The museum contained rows and rows of photos of frightened looking boys and girls. 3 million people were killed over the 3 years of regime. I can’t even fathom how that was possible. It was so disturbing to hear about the horrible things done to these prisoners. Even more disturbing was the image of kids running and laughing in the yard of the high school replaced by screams and moans of people being tortured and starved to death. I bought a book recommended by our CEO called First They Killed My Father. Then we visited Cheong Ek, one of the largest killing fields in the area. We walked through the seemingly lush area, where they had played loud music to drown out the sounds of the victims from the factories not far away. The ground is spotted with ditches, where bones have been recovered from mass graves. The largest contained 450 bodies. And still, they are finding new graves as the monsoon rain washes away dirt to reveal teeth and scraps of clothing. There was a tree that was reported used by soldiers to kill children. They would hang them by the feet and smash their head against the trunk. Horrifying. After that, we went to the “Russian market”, which was a local market selling everything. We had lunch there, called (ack, I can’t remember… I’ll find out). Then we had some time to wander the market. I bought a Mont Blanc pen, and some souvenirs. Then we had free time back at the hotel. I went together some money our, and found a place for men’s hair cuts that advertised a similar cut to the one I wanted. It was $2! The hair dresser understood what it wanted, so I was pretty happy with the result For dinner, we went to a restaurant that served organic food prepared by students who had previously been living on the streets. They also specialised in insects, particularly tarantulas. I split one between a couple of girls. It wasn’t too bad – chewy append crunchy. It took a bit to get the exoskeleton down though. Then they brought out the live ones… I could see they were defanged, but it was still creepy seeing them start to run. I had one on me for a photo, and it sprayed gray liquid all over my forearm. Eww. For dinner I had a lovely tofu salad with sweet potato spring rolls and a jungle ant and beef curry. The lemongrass in the curry was a bit much, but the salad was very nice. Then we went for a couple of drinks down the road. The place was a bit seedy, with a lot of prostitutes hanging around, so we decided to call it a night early.


Temples and pub street fun

Temples and pub street fun
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia


We jumped on the bus at 4:45am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy and the colours changed pretty slowly, so it got boring very quickly. Interestingly, there was a statue of Vishnu in the temple, from when it was originally Hindu. There were heaps of Buddha statues lying around that had been beheaded. We went back to the hotel for breakfast at 9am. Yummy eggs and toast. Then we had enough time to have a nap before going back to the Angkor Wat area to visit a couple of different temples, with huge frieze artworks showing elements of legends and history of wars. Each pillar in one temple had four faces carved on every side. As we wandered around, it started to rain. It was okay, but it put a damper on our motivation to see more of the temples. We did visit the iconic temple where banyan trees had taken over the structure of the buildings, rumble lying everywhere. A scene from Tomb Raider was filmed there as well as the main part of Angkor Wat. For lunch, I ordered chicken amok, which is a sweet oniony curry. It arrived served in a coconut! Very flavourful, but I couldn’t finish it all. Then we had the afternoon free, which I spent most of napping and catching up on Facebook. At dinner, I had a tom yum soup, and a couple of Singapore slings. Also played a doubles in a game of pool with some boys and the CEO. Then to Pub Street (yes, that’s literally it’s name) to have a dance at a pub or two. I started dancing with a couple of Cambodian girls. So much fun! I ended up coming back to the hotel at 5am.


Sawadee kah to Thailand

Sawadee kah to Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand


I set off from Kathmandu at 10am to Delhi. Surprise, surprise the flight was running late, but luckily my connecting flight wasn’t for a couple of hours. Then Delhi to Bangkok, arriving about 8pm. Prepaid taxi to the hotel. The driver was lovely, although he didn’t speak any English. I arrived at the hotel, and thought I was in heaven. Hot showers with plenty of pressure that didn’t spray everywhere on the floor. Clean, crisp white sheets without stains. Comfy bed, and room service. No honking horns outside the windows. I ordered room service for dinner – fish cakes and duck red curry. The fish cakes were a little oily and anaemic, but the flavour was so good in both. The next day, complimentary breakfast buffet – 4 star hotel style. I had pancakes, fruit, eggs and toast and a hot chocolate from a Nescafé machine that was pretty damn good. I had to change rooms at midday to move into the twin room I’d be sharing with a tour buddy. After that I took the subway to a shopping centre. I asked to concierge for directions and they explained it so casually that I thought it would be easy to figure out, and I glossed over the details. Hmm, not so much. The system seemed similar to the Japanese system, so I knew how to work the ticket machines, but I couldn’t work out which station I was supposed to get off at. Luckily the guy in the ticket booths was really helpful and I got there no problem, even changing from subway to above ground train lines. The MBK shopping centre was huge. It reminded me of Shenzhen, with random assortments of shops squeezed into small spaces, and varying product displays – from glass cases showcasing items laid on velvet, to racks of sunglasses and watches hung from hooks in the ceiling, and rails on the walls. I bought some new earrings, a necklace, some leather wrist bands and then sat down for a mocha. I then tried to find out how much it would be to send a package of souvenirs home. The price was far too high, so I decided to leave a small backpack at the hotel instead. I got back to the room in mid afternoon. My roomie arrived shortly after (another Pom!), and we chatted for a little while before our meeting downstairs. Our group consisted of 3 boys from WA, a Canadian girl from Hong Kong, a German girl living in Switzerland and another from Iceland. Our tour leader is softly spoken, and seemed to take it upon himself to quash our expectations of this tour. No drugs, no prostitutes, be careful of your bags, because there are snatchings, lock up valuables even in your room because you won’t get it back if it goes missing, don’t get aggressive with the locals because they will get their friends, don’t go anywhere alone or you might be mugged. It was a combination of Duh and What Kind of People Do You Think We Are… (Or what kind of people come on this tour). We went to dinner together, and with some people’s first taste of Thai food. I had phad see ew, which was delicious but small. So I had dessert too – longan and nut in cold sugar syrup. Unusual taste, but tasty. Not many longan in it though – disappointing. It started pouring while we ate (with lightning – yay!), so we stuck around for a bit waiting for it to subside. Back in the room, I watched the lightning show as I went to sleep.


Farewell to tour

Farewell to tour
Kochi, India

Kochi, India


I was a bit late out to breakfast, so I had bananas and masala chai tea. It was probably a good thing because my stomach had been a bit tender anyway. We then boarded a boat to cruise down the river. It was so peaceful, lounging on the deck, with the brown water carrying islands of water plants along side us, people waving from the bank and passing boats. An hour of relaxation. Then back on the bus, a coffee break, and a couple of hours later answer were back in Fort Kochi. It feels so weird to be saying good bye to India. I remember on my first day in Delhi confessing to my roommate that I already didn’t like India and was dreading the rest of the trip – thinking I would hate it. I was really wrong. I think I’ll actually miss it… Kati rolls for lunch with the group. Note to self, learn how to make these. Our CEO left us a little time at the hotel before promising to come back and help those who wanted to catch the ferry. I spent the time trying to post the brass Ganesh back home. I went to the post office with the statue that was wrapped by the guy who sold it to me. The clerk looked at me sceptically, and told me it had to be a cube shape, but fussed with it non-committedly for 15 mins, trying to shape it into a cube and then, opening it up to see that it really was a statue. He sent me to the tailor shop down the road, saying to hurry because the PO closed in 30 mins. The lady wrapped and wrapped and wrapped it in tape until I only had 2 mins to spare, and I scribbled the address on it quickly and ran to the office. Same clerk… Just as unhelpful. There is no name on the receiving address, and the sending address is not complete, it had to be the full address of the hotel, and it’s too late anyway, we’re closed. *******. Luckily our CEO was lovely and offered to post it for me when he got home to Chennai. Anyway, the CEO helped me, a girl Nikki who was catching the same flight as me, who I’d offered to share my hotel room with, and a Danish guy to catch the ferry across to near the city. From there, we got a tuk tuk to the hotel.


Homestay

Homestay
Alappuzha, India

Alappuzha, India


Jumped on the bus to go to our homestay in the Kerala backwaters. On the way, we stopped at a spice plantation, where the guide pointed out cocoa, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, coffee and other spice plants. We also stopped at the Connemara tea factory for a tour. The guide spoke quite fast, with a strong accent and mumbled, which made it difficult to understand him. But I found out the reason you use the young tea leaves is because the enzymes required to cure the leaves disappear as it ages, as does the caffeine. We parted with our luggage and the bus, and took a canoe to the man-made island for our homestay. It was a charming old house with a steep staircase. We enjoyed lunch, and then afternoon tea at 4pm, while our CEO helped us organise our onward plans, calling hotels and airlines to confirm. The father of the family took us on a walking tour of the wheat fields, and the village, explaining the local industries of coconuts and rice. At sunset, we took a canoe cruise down the river, listening to our guides sing in the local language. It was really pleasant, very relaxing. Dinner was prepared by the family, and was delicious water buffalo curry, with rice and paratha, and a banana pudding for dessert. Our CEO also had a sampling of toddy, a raw coconut liquor, which most people found undrinkable. I didn’t mind it, so I offered to polish off other’s unfinished glasses. It had a slightly sour coconut taste. It was fine to swallow down, but not something you would sip for the flavour. I get an involuntary squirm when I shot tequila, so this was nowhere near that bad.


Quiet day at Thekkady

Quiet day at Thekkady
Idukki, India

Idukki, India


4 hour bus ride from Mandurai to Thekkady. Lunch was delicious paratha and paneer butter masala at hotel. Some of the group went to ride elephants, but I decided to get a massage instead. The girl who did my massage was lovely. 21, studying sociology, and due to be married probably in a couple of years. She used way too much oil, it was dripping off me, but the massage was nice all the same. For dinner, we went to a cooking class, where we learned how to make Kerala paratha, pineapple curry, masala chips, spicy chicken, and okra curry. The flavours were very different to the class in the north – coconut oil instead of mustard oil, curry leaves and mustard seeds in everything. The curries seemed lighter, less heavy with spice and contained more veges. I was really interested in the paratha, because it has been my favourite since coming to the south. But it was a lot of hard work, kneading and curling and flattening. So I might leave it to the experts.