A Travellerspoint blog

Mid Autumn festival in Hanoi

semi-overcast 25 °C

We knew the Mid Autumn Festival was coming up by the huge red lanterns and bunting around the pagodas and an increase in the number of stalls and kiosks selling mooncakes - anything from one individual cake up to huge red or gold boxes with each cake encased in an equally bright carton. The cakes are pastries have a thick filling made from lotus seed paste and some have a cooked salted egg or egg yolk in the middle. Harry I hope you have eaten the ones that Ed and Peter lovingly brought back for you last week!

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Now that I've found out more about it, Nick and I were so slow on this one so we shall definitely made the effort next year to be in town and be part of the festivities. It was so hot yesterday and we both just wanted to get out of the city centre. I saw lots of little girls coming home from school wearing silver crowns, sparkly and very much OTT!

According to Wikipedia: "The Vietnamese version of the holiday recounts the legend of Cuội, whose wife accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree, taking him with it to the Moon. Every year, on the mid-autumn festival, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way to Earth.

SE Asia has such fantastical stories to explain events or natural occurances and, as so often is the way, there are different versions.

So, in the spirit of the Mid Autumn festival, I wandered around our lovely pagoda next door and took various photos but this lantern is probably the only one worth showing. I then walked round part of West Lake and saw these guys fishing. There are always men fishing around us - they are known, nationally, for their patience and they stand or crouch for, seemingly, hours. The lake was very calm after a huge storm and heavy rain all last night and temperatures have finally dropped 10 degrees down to 25 today (but, reassuringly, slowly climbing again over the w/end. ).

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I think I am finally up to date with the blog so can now just keep you all updated. I know I've missed some birthdays - Cousin Sue, Hamish and Alison - hope you all had happy days.

Posted by langforda 08:55 Archived in Vietnam Tagged hanoi Comments (0)

Siem Reap is not just for the temples!

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Two nights in Siem Reap and we saw some temples and visited the Tonle Sap but we also really enjoyed the town. Lots of bars and perfect places for backpackers (the street called "Pub Street seemed the ideal spot) but those of us with a few grey hairs found some good restaurants - especially when it was teeming with rain. I was messing about with my camera and took various shots. The street was under several inches of rain and motorcyclists and tuktuk drivers were still nipping about but with umbrellas up!

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Mr Dollar our tuktuk driver was great: not pushy or demanding, sense of humour, OK not the smartest tuktuk in town either (he had to borrow a cushion from a friend) but those were all reasons why we liked him. We came back to him at one point and he was reading quietly - Jane Eyre. He has just started his 4 year teaching training course and this was part of his syllabus. He'd already read Dracula and, as you guys will know, Whitby is my second home so of course I was off, talking about the 199 steps etc. He gave us his business card with his website: it needs a bit of work on it but Mr Dollar is clearly determined to succeed and needs the tourist trade to finance himself through college. I took this photo of him, feet up in his tuktuk reading Jane Austen in the pouring rain!

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Posted by langforda 02:11 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tonle Comments (0)

By bus up to Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

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We could have taken the boat, up the Tonle Sap lake from Phnom Penh to Chong Kneas at a cost of about $25 and take roughly 4-6 hours but, having flown into Cambodia and will be flying out again, we wanted to see much more of the countryside so took the 5-ish hours bus ride and cost under half that of the boat. Most of the 315 km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was across a huge, flat plain - as far as the eye could see - and had life going on the roadside all the way: either villages but more often than not, a long line of houses, both sides. Chickens, kids, dogs all wandered around as the buses and lorries rolled past on the fairly new tarmac road. Suddenly a huge pagoda would appear -vast, grand affairs, usually with a smart white wall on the roadside and enormous white elephants by the gates. Incongruously there would also be 4 or 5 storey houses, built on a grand scale in the middle of nowhere or with very much poorer neighbours either side. The majority of houses were built on stilts with either a raised path leading from the road or the front entrance was at road height and, as the bank fell away, the house was stilted.

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We've all heard of Angkor Wat and know that are "lots of temples" but it isn't until you begin to plan your day that you realise (or I did) just how many there are that Angkor Wat is actually only one (albeit the world's largest religious building) of hundreds of temples. They represent the remains of a vast political, religious and social centre for Cambodia's ancient Khmer empire. At its height, up to around 1219 with the death of Jayavarman VII, the city had a population of one million when London had a miniscule 50,000. As structures of brick or stone were reserved only for the gods, the houses and public buildings built of wood have long gone. The French "rediscovered" Angkor in the 1860s but actually Angkor Wat was occupied by a wealthy working monastry with monks and slaves and in 1907 the first foreign tourists arrived. The French plundered the temples and am sure others had their share as well. Nick and I have read that the Khmer Rouge destroyed sections of the temples, beheaded Buddahs and generally showed no respect or acknowledgement of the sites. However, our guide told us emphatically that the Khmer Rouge left the temples alone. There you go.

Ok, that is an incredibly short background to the temples and does them no justice at all: just go yourselves! An incredible experience.

In the end we only 'did' two: Angkor Wat with a guide and then we went to Ta Prohm, best known for the tree roots growing around and through the ruins (also featured alongside Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and, I think, the basis for "Tomb Raider". Am sure someone with far more knowledge and interest in films will put me right!).

Angkor Wat is as breathtaking as described. It is VAST! I did take quite a few photos (100s) but have selected just a few.....

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Ta Prohm was quite amazing. There weren't many tourists around as we went during lunchtime and so could wander round quietly in the damp, hot, jungle environment. Difficult to describe it - look at the photos or Google the temples for a far better description.

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Posted by langforda 02:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged angkor Comments (0)

Tonle Sap

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In some people's view, only a day at the temples of Angkor is a disgrace but we were only in Siem Reap for two days and decided we would visit one of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake. It sounded very touristy but we made that decision and, once there, we realised we had made absolutely the right one.

The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia and provides fish and irrigation water for half the population of Cambodia. The lake is linked to the mighty Mekong by a 100km channel. From the middle of May to mid October, the level of the Mekong rises rapidly and backs up into this channel, making it flow back into the Tonle Sap Lake. Nick was correct when he questioned the current of the river in Phnom Penh as it was indeed flowing "the wrong way" and very visibly a strong current.

Incredibly, this force of nature increases the size of the lake from 2,500 sq km to 13,500sq km or more and the depth from 2.2m to over 10m. As the water coming down the Mekong subsides from about the beginnng of October, so the flow in the channel is reversed and the water level in the lake begins to drop.

This amazing natural feat makes the Tonle Sap one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish as apparently the flooded forest is an ideal spawning ground. The fishing industry based upon the lake supports approximately a million people and around 80,000 people live in floating villages around the lake. The lake's ecosystem has been given world wide recognition with "protected biosphere status" but if threatened dams go ahead in China and Laos, as well as continued deforestation (which loosens top soil which is then carried downstream and deposited in the Tonle Sap, thus silting up shallow areas), having a label isn't going to protect the environment, communities and livelihoods of so many. This would have a devastating impact upon Vietnam as well as Cambodia.

Mr Dollar, our tuktuk driver, duly drove us there. Having driven past factories where all that nice cheap clothing we can buy in the UK are made by people working 12 hour shifts and earning around $61 a month and then villages strung along the road with hand pumps serving many houses, suddenly there are signs of road building and there are a few white, modern, unattactive booths and walkways. Apparently the Koreans have invested money to build the road and need to recoup the cash and the local police need payment to maintain security so there is a flat fee of $10 p.p. for the tour by sampan. There are the usual group of women selling drinks and just as we were walking down the slipway to the line of boats, a guy takes our photo - one by one. I don't think Nick or Kamal even noticed.

The sampans are scruffy but have a roof and seats which remind me of cheap waiting room seats but we aren't here for a luxury tour. I very much regret that I can't remember the name of our guide - especially as he was good company, keen to tell us all about the village and such a lovely smile! Our helmswoman had her 3 year old little girl with her and our guide explained that she also has a baby but her husband was killed, on the lake, only a few months before. Deaths are common amongst the villagers; the lake is vast, the boats flat and offer no shelter if you are far out in the middle of the lake and a storm gets up.

We visited the village of Chong Kneas although you can go further to a much larger village, Kompong Khleang, which also has a couple of large floating pagodas. The villagers need to move their boats as the level of the lake rises and flows and whilst we were there, we saw a couple of houses being moved. No Pickfords; you untie your house from the tree, pile any extra belongings onto a raft, tied behind you and off you go. The rafts had baskets, pot plants, chickens, one had a pig in a pen. I guess if you fell out with your neighbour, you just slipped your mooring and moved elsewhere!

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You can make out the pile of belongings on the raft behind the houseboat.

There was a village "street" - everything floating: couple of Catholic churches, basketball court, schools, English language school, lots of shops. Our guide pointed out the orphanage run by a Catholic organisation and that it was expected that tourists would buy presents for the children. We duly pulled up by a shop, he went in and spent the expected $10 and we moved onto the orphanage. I've uploaded the first photo of Nick with the children but haven't included any more: it just wasn't very pleasant. Firstly, Nick was appalled that for his $10, he reckoned he got $2 worth of notebooks ; when he questioned this with the storekeeper, the latter did give him the pencils but clearly someone other than the children were doing very nicely out of this. We thought that Nick would hand the acquired goods to a member of the orphanage staff but the children crowded round and he was clearly expected to hand out his gifts. The children were grabbing the items, pushing each other, coming back for more. Another group of tourists had just left the orphanage and had clearly bought sweets or crisps and the kids were chucking away the rubbish from those and grabbing whatever they could from the next tourist - Nick.

We really would recommend you go to the lake - the sheer size and natural phenomenon is worth the visit but.... go into Siem Reap and buy $10 worth of pencils/paper/whatever you like and give it to the children: don't get ripped off in the store. Believe me, it would have been difficult to have motored past the orphanage and not done anything.

The villages are poor and whilst there are rich fishing grounds some, for whatever reason, decide to use tourists as a hopeful way of making some money. A faster boat came up beside us and the little girl in the bows began scrabbling around and suddenly emerged with the most enormous water snake, wrapped it around her and was clearly begging. Another father and little son came alongside and the boy had cans of cold beer and coke. Kamal reckoned he had negotiated a good deal with the little lad! There is a tourist centre further along the lake shore which gives some flora and fauna (what is the aquarian equivalent? can't think!), facts and figures about the lake, a few crocodiles in a cage, a couple of souvenir and hat shops and a cafe - all floating, of course.

We saw the village on a bright, sunny, hot day and therefore, arguably, at its best but reality is that living there is not easy. Our guide must have been about 20 years old and wants to train as a teacher and then return to his floating village. He and Mr Dollar are the future of Cambodia, focussed on educating the next generation but with the former, returning to the hard life on the lake to teach. As we left the boat, he duly shook hands with Nick and Kamal and then launched towards me with the huge hug!

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Basketball court and shops

Oh, and the man with the camera at the start of our village trip? A young girl of about 10 had three plates with Angkor Wat printed on the surrounds and in the middle - yes! our photograph. $5 each - they even came with a plate stand. They have to be one of the best, tackiest souvenirs I have, or probably will, own. I'm a bit miffed that my photo is peeling from the plate so I now have to find some SuperGlue in Hanoi!

Posted by langforda 01:42 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tonlesap Comments (0)

Cambodia for a long weekend

We did say we were going to make the most of living in SE Asia...

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Thursday, 2nd September was National Day in Vietnam and therefore, what we now realise is quaintly termed in the UK, was a "bank holiday". As most people also took the Friday off work as well, I was tasked with scouting SE Asia and finding a destination for the long weekend. We wanted to go Expo in Shanghai but couldn't get the flights and visa to co-incide. However, Cambodia seemed a fantastic second choice. Flew to Phnom Penh via Vientiane, one night there then by bus (5 hours) to Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh was an amazing city after the noise, chaos and grot of Hanoi. I think the most aggressive or noisy person/object we encountered were some of the tuktuk and taxi drivers, eager for business. We stayed in a great hotel, overlooking the Tonle Sap River and a few hundred yards down from us, it joined the mighty Mekong River. Nick kept asking why the current was flowing the wrong way UP the Tonle Sap and this was explained two days later... I shall keep you in suspense til then but the geographers amongst you may well know already (clever clogs).

PP was also considerable less humid than Hanoi so, combined with tuktuk riding, it was a joy moving around. We couldn't possibly fit in all the "sights" of PP so decided to do the three which represented recent Cambodian history. We first went to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: extraordinary elaborate architecture, beautiful carvings, tiles, white masonary and gold everywhere. The gardens were immaculate (yes! Grass! A rarity in Hanoi) and immense respect and reverence within the huge pagoda complex. I had failed to read the guidebook properly and had a sleeveless dress on so had to buy a £1.50 Silver Pagoda one-size-fits-all T shirt. To say I was hot, is putting it mildly but I remembered that girls only "glow" so glowed like a proverbial worm".

You may know that I bought myself a rather nice camera as I left England so was looking forward to snapping away... except you do have power up the battery, don't you? US$60 later.... and one Cambodian shopkeeper is very happy and I am the owner of two chargers (albeit one left in Hanoi.....). So basically, I didn't take any photos of the Palace or Pagoda but bought some very nice postcards.....

Nick and I had read up on Cambodian history before we went and we did feel we should explore the Khmer Rouge history - to a point. So we went out to the killing fields at Cheong Ek. We all know the reputation of the Khmer Rouge: an estimated 2 million innocent people killed in a space of 4 years - men, women, children and babies - and I won't go into a history lesson on the role of the US and the West - most of know the outline and, suffice to say, no West country did enough to support the Cambodian people. Incredibly, Western powers ensured the Khmer Rouge retined its seat at the UN until 1991 meaning that those responsible for such genocide were representing their victims at an international level. We did go, fairly briefly, to the Tuol Sleng school which was dubbed "S-21", the Khmer Rouge detention and torture centre. You didn't need to linger long and you had to walk in and out past a line of beggars, some horrifically scarred or disabled. Thousands of landmines remain in the jungle, countryside and along the Thai border.

Cambodia was always called "the land of smiles" and it really is. The people are so smiley and we met two young men, in particular, who, to us, made us a huge impression and are definitely the future for the country.

Posted by langforda 04:52 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia Comments (0)

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