Slowing Down at Otres Beach

DSC04902After riding the bamboo train in Battambang we had a pretty open agenda for the rest of our time in Cambodia, as well as for the remainder of our trip. We heard great things about the Cambodian beaches, so we knew we wanted to check them out. From Battambang in the northwest, we had to take a 14 hour, two bus journey to Sihanoukville, on the southwestern coast. Once there, we took a short tuk tuk ride past all of the popular and crowded beaches (which are also reputed to be pretty seedy) to the edge of development at Otres beach. We stayed at a place called Mushroom Point, and lucked out on our second night by getting their best hut, right on the ocean. They didn’t take reservations or require you to tell them when you were leaving, so once we got this hut, we could play it by ear. One night turned into two weeks pretty quickly. If not for our 30 day visa limit in Cambodia and our goal to go back to the Western coast of Thailand before coming home, we may have stayed even longer.

Sunset at Otres

Sunset at Otres

There isn’t all that much to do at Otres aside from laze on the beach. We got to slow down and really relax for the first time on our trip, and maybe for the first time in our lives. It was amazing to have two weeks in one place with very little to do. Our hut there was the most rustic room we had, with no furniture other than a foam mat on the floor for a bed and a small shelf for our things, so we didn’t even spend much time in there. There were shared bathrooms with a hose for a shower (that often only had a small drip of water coming out), but we quickly got used to it. While Otres didn’t look as pretty as some of the Thai beaches we visited, we found it to be the best water for swimming on our whole trip. We spent our days alternating between eating, drinking, swimming in the ocean, and reading in papasan chairs.
 The road into Otres. Not a very developed place. There was talk about a French company coming in and developing a large portion of the beach, but for now their land is empty and the 20 or so other 'hotels' are small operations with several huts or bungalows. It had a very island feel, even though it isn't.

The road into Otres. Not a very developed place. There was talk about a French company coming in and developing a large portion of the beach, but for now their land is empty and the 20 or so other ‘hotels’ are small operations with several huts or bungalows. It had a very island feel for being so close to a major town.


John waves from out in the  ocean.

John waves from the ocean.


View down the beach; lots of people kite surfed. In the background there are various islands. We intended to visit them but we were so content at Otres that we never made it out to the islands.

View down the beach; lots of people kite surfed. In the background there are various islands. We intended to visit them but we were so content at Otres that we never made it out to the islands.


This is our beachfront hut at

Our beachfront hut at “Mushroom Point”


Inside our hut.

Inside our hut.


There was a slack line at the edge of Mushroom Point and a lot of time was devoted to walking across without falling. John was much better at it than I was, especially after I fell early on and got scared of breaking a limb.

There was a slack line at the edge of Mushroom Point and a lot of folks spent time trying to walk across without falling. John was much better at it than I was, especially after I fell early on and got scared of breaking a limb.


The gathering point for all the local folks selling stuff on the beach was next to Mushroom Point so boys were often playing on the slack line or just chatting with us.

The gathering point for all the local folks selling stuff on the beach was next to Mushroom Point so these boys were often playing on the slack line.


A little 4 or 5 yr old kid we got to know on Otres. He was always selling bracelets on the beach (hanging around his waist) and he really knew his way around an iPad better. Sometimes, like in this photo, we'd be talking and he would have to step away and take a phone call! It was the cutest and most hilarious thing. We figured it was his mom calling to check in.

A little 4 or 5 yr old kid we got to know on Otres. He was always selling bracelets on the beach and he really knew his way around an iPad, as I discovered one day when he commandeered John’s while I was reading on it. He hopped up into my papasan chair and played Angry Birds for 20 minutes in my lap. Sometimes, he’d come up to us just to chat and then he would have to step away and take a phone call! It was the cutest and most hilarious thing. We figured it was his mom calling to check in.


This little boy is the brother of the boy on the phone, and Coca is the woman on the right. She gave the best massages I had in all of SE Asia, and during our two weeks at Otres I set up a routine where she met me every other day at sunset for a one hour massage (for $6).

This little boy is the brother of the boy on the phone, and Coca is the woman on the right. She gave the best massages I had in all of SE Asia, and during our two weeks at Otres I set up a routine where she met me every other day at sunset for a one hour massage (for $6).


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At the end of our two weeks on Otres, feeling pretty relaxed in one of our favorite papasan chairs.

At the end of our two weeks on Otres, feeling pretty relaxed in one of our favorite papasan chairs.

Unexpected Delights in Battambang

Buddhas at Phnom Sampeau near Battambang

Buddhas at Phnom Sampeau near Battambang

For the most part, our time in Battambang was a few days of relaxing and decompressing after our fun-filled week with Alex and Camille at Angkor Wat. Battambang is a bit of a sleepy town, but this was just what we needed. Lucky for us, many tourists skip over Battambang on their circuit through SE Asia. I think it was the most authentic view we got into the normal lives of Cambodians (when they are not catering to tourists). And because we didn’t have any expectations for what we’d find here, everything we did turned out to be really fun.

In our three days there, we rode the bamboo train, took a cooking class, walked the roughly 4×8 block town numerous times, and visited the nearby Phnom Sampeu (a temple), which is near The Killing Caves (covered in this post about memorials of the Cambodian genocide). We also spent a not insignificant amount of time figuring out how to leave the town and buying bus tickets.

Riding the bamboo train

Riding the bamboo train


Riding the bamboo train was the main reason we came to Battambang and it was a great time. It only lasted about an hour and did feel touristy, but we went early on a gorgeous yet hot day, so it was pretty refreshing. I just don’t think there is anything like it in the world. Also called a ‘norry‘, the makeshift bamboo platforms on wheels run on old train tracks put in by French colonialists that were mostly shut down during the Khmer Rouge. A small electric generator engine powers the train, and the rails can be a bit warped as they haven’t been kept up. The only bamboo trains still running in Cambodia are in Battambang. Each platform went up to 30 mph and felt like a flat roller coaster (more like the bumpy old wooden kind) going through beautiful green fields and countryside. There was an increased adrenaline rush when we went flying over a few bridges that were quite high above either creeks or creek beds. We saw lots of other tourists taking the ~1 hr roundtrip ride like us, but locals also use the train for transportation and to carry things like rice along the route.

View from the bamboo train

View from the bamboo train


If you run into someone on the track, the 'train' with the fewest people on it has to pick up and move out of the way for the other one to pass. We probably passed about 5-8 others on our route, but the drivers have the move pretty down pat.

If you run into someone on the track, the platform with the fewest people on it has to pick up and move out of the way for the other one to pass. We probably passed about 5-8 others on our route, but the drivers have the move pretty down pat.


Meeting a platform full of locals heading the opposite direction.

Meeting a platform full of locals heading the opposite direction.


This was the end of the route for tourists - where we all got off and sat at a few tables while locals tried to sell us stuff.

This ‘station’ was the end of the route for tourists – where we all got off and sat at a few tables while locals tried to sell us stuff.


The kids at the end of the train ride make homemade jewelry out of bamboo leaves, and force it on you while insisting it is 'free, no money'. Of course I gave this kid a dollar for my ring, but I insisted he share it with his friends (who were also pushing their wares on me) and they all ran off squealing. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing to do or not.

The kids at the end of the train ride make homemade jewelry out of bamboo leaves, and give it to you while insisting it is ‘free, no money’. Of course I gave this kid a dollar, but I insisted he share it with his friends (who were also pushing their wares on me) and they all ran off squealing “she said share! she said share!”. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing to do or not.

Our cooking class in Battambang was one of my favorite activities on the whole trip. We had a really great instructor who owns his own restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot.” The sign has a large smoking black cauldron on it so not that kind of pot (although we did learn that marijuana is used as an herb in traditional Cambodian cooking). At $10 for a 4+ hour class that included a trip through the market to buy everything we needed, this was a great deal. Since we didn’t have the opportunity to cook for ourselves on the trip, we didn’t often take the time to saunter through markets and never bought greens, fresh fish, or meat. But with our Cambodian instructor leading the way and conducting the transactions, we got a firsthand glimpse into a very traditional experience. We bought all of the food for our meals straight from the local market and then prepared it ourselves, which was (sadly) an uncommon experience for me.

At the market to buy food for our cooking class.

At the market to buy food for our cooking class.

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This woman cut the head off of the fish right in front of us.

This woman cut the head off of the fish right in front of us.


If a fish flipped out of its bucket, they just left it as if nothing had happened. I'll admit that it kind of freaked me out to stand next to it knowing it couldn't breathe, even though we were having another fish slaughtered right in front of us to eat later that evening.

If a fish flipped out of its bucket, they just left it as if nothing had happened. I’ll admit that it kind of freaked me out to stand next to this fish knowing it couldn’t breathe, even though we were having another fish slaughtered right in front of us to eat later that evening.


Look at the size of those beans and cucumbers!

Look at the size of those beans and zucchini!

This made me a bit squeamish.

This made me a bit squeamish.

And, with our finished products straight from the woks.

And, with our finished products straight from the woks.

Our tuk tuk driver/guide explaining this mural.

Our tuk tuk driver/guide explaining this mural.

Our day trip to the temple was really fantastic and included a strenuous hike up to and around the temples at Phnom Sampeu, which are on a limestone mountain with amazing views. The Killing Caves are also at this site. I think the best part about this whole day trip was that we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us from our hotel and back (about 30 minutes each way) and we had no idea that he was also going to hike with us through the entire complex and serve as a tour guide. The paltry amount he charged us (with no haggling from us) was so little that we actually felt bad, but I think this was indicative of the low demand in a not-so-touristy and poor town. He seemed really excited to have our business and hang out with us for the day and we really enjoyed his company.
Looking up to Phnom Sampeau from the ground.

Looking up to Phnom Sampeau from the ground.

A mural near Phnom Sampeau

A ceiling and wall mural near Phnom Sampeau

Large Buddha at Phnom Sampeau

Large Buddha at Phnom Sampeau


At the top of the hill; over 1,000 winding steps!

At the top of the hill; over 1,000 winding steps!


Close up of one of the temples

Close up detail on one of the temples


Resting at the top and taking in the view.

Resting at the top and taking in the view.

Traditional Cambodian dancers. I took this in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, but I forgot to put it in that blog post.

Traditional Cambodian dancers. I took this in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, but I forgot to put it in that blog post.

One last hidden treasure during our time in Battambang turned out to be the very loud nightclub by our hotel. It was apparently a popular spot every night with the locals, and this could’ve been much worse for us, but the music was fantastic from our balcony! It seemed to be a local band playing what sounded like traditional music, which we had also heard at Angkor Wat and reminded us of Bluegrass and Celtic music.

Our guide insisted on taking our photo in front of this white elephant, though we didn't really understand  the significance.

Our guide insisted on taking our photo in front of this white elephant, though we didn’t really learn the significance.


Enjoying a beer at a local joint. It was a sleepy town and we did lots of relaxing. I think we played pool at this bar for a while.

Enjoying a beer at a local joint. I think this photo captures the feeling of our time in Battambang.

Angkor Wat with Alex and Camille

Relief of Hindu Gods in Angkor Wat

Relief of Hindu Gods in Angkor Wat

One of the many things about the trip that I hadn’t been expecting was how lonely it would feel sometimes. Luckily, John and I got along surprisingly well for spending 24 hours a day with each other. That said, it would be hard to overstate how happy we were to meet up with our friends from DC during the third month of our trip. (Alex and Camille, thanks for spending a week of your vacation with us!)

One of the many Buddha faces at Bayon.

One of the many Buddha faces at Bayon.

The four of us spent about two days touring various ruins of Angkor Wat, a temple complex and archeological park that covers 400 square kilometres (about 150 square miles). No matter how you measured it, the place was huge. Thank goodness Alex and Camille planned ahead and arranged to have a guide with an air conditioned van! I’m not sure I could’ve made it through two days of touring the ruins in the intense heat otherwise. Our guide picked out about 7 ruins for us to visit over two days. She knew the best times to go to each one in order to get the best light and have the fewest crowds. I am sure you could enjoy Angkor Wat without a guide or with a bicycle or tuk tuk, but I’d highly recommend the way we did it.

Our fantastic guide for Angkor Wat. Both days she wore two long sleeved shirts, pants, socks, and a backpack with waters for us. I couldn't understand how she did it!

Our fantastic guide for Angkor Wat. Both days she wore two long sleeved shirts, pants, socks, and a backpack with waters for us. I couldn’t understand how she did it in the sweltering heat!

I can’t even begin to describe all of the many cool things about the experience of seeing these ruins, so hopefully the slew of pictures below will give a hint. Oddly enough, while it was really neat to finally see Angkor Wat itself (the one with the five towers that is famous as being the largest religious monument in the world), I have to say my favorites were Ta Phrom, which overgrown by the jungle, and Bayon, a ruin with over 200 large Buddha faces. I think that going in with relatively no knowledge of any of the lesser known ruins added an element of surprise. Either way, it was really amazing to get to see so many of the ruins, to get a feel for their impressive scale, and to learn so much about the history.

Heading into our first ruin of the day, Angkor Thom.

Heading into our first ruin of the day, Angkor Thom (I think).


Inside Ta Phrom, aka The Tomb Raider, where said movie was filmed.

Inside Ta Phrom, aka The Tomb Raider, where said movie was filmed. The jungle has grown over much of the ruins here and looks really cool.


Large tree growing out of the ruins at Ta Phrom

Large tree growing out of the ruins at Ta Phrom


Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom


Alex and John in one of the various temples on the first day.

Alex and John in one of the various temples on the first day.

No site is too holy for John to make a crude joke.

No site is too holy for a crude joke …

We climbed lots of stairs.

We climbed lots of stairs.

Several of the temples in the complex are active religious sites, so everyone had to have pants to the knees, and women had to have their shoulders covered. This how I handled that in the intense heat.

Several of the temples in the complex are active religious sites, so everyone had to have pants, skirts, or shorts to the knees, and women had to have their shoulders covered. This was how I covered up inside those ruins, and it was pretty sweltering.


Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple


Bayon Temple

Inside Bayon Temple. There are 216 Buddha faces in this temple.


Eskimo kissing a Buddha

Eskimo kissing a Buddha at Bayon


Sunrise over Angkor Wat; we watched from the ruins of  library to avoid some of the crowds.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat; we watched from the ruins of the library to avoid some of the crowds.


Crowds outside of Angkor Wat at sunrise.

Crowds outside of Angkor Wat at sunrise. The building in the background is where we camped out at sunrise.


Inside Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat. It was interesting to learn that while it began as a Hindu temple, it was later ruled by Buddhists. There are carvings and reliefs representing both religions inside.

Close up of one of the infamous towers of Angkor Wat

Close up of one of the famous towers of Angkor Wat


View from just below one of the towers at Angkor Wat

View from just below one of the towers at Angkor Wat


Having fun inside Angkor Wat

Playing around inside Angkor Wat


Banteay Srei, ("The Citadel of Women" in Khmer) is a sandstone temple about 13 km from Angkor Wat. Small in scale and much more intricately carved than the larger temples, there are many carvings of female, as well as male, entities. It is also the only temple not commissioned by a monarch, as this one was built for a counselor to a king.

Banteay Srei, (“The Citadel of Women” in Khmer) is a sandstone temple about 35 km from Angkor Wat. It is much smaller and more intricately carved than the larger temples and there are many carvings of female, as well as male, deities. It is also the only temple not commissioned by a monarch, as this one was built for a counselor to a king.


Monkeys at Bantey Srei

Monkeys at Banteay Srei


Cambodian musicians playing outside of Bantey Srei

Cambodian musicians playing outside of Banteay Srei. Of all the local music we heard on the trip, Cambodian was my favorite as it reminded me of Bluegrass and Celtic music.


For the history buffs, this was a neat timeline showing all of the Angkor temples down the right side and dating them in the context of other famous temples and monuments listed on the left.

For the history buffs, this was a neat timeline showing all of the Angkor temples down the right side and dating them in the context of other famous temples and monuments listed on the left.

Memorials of the Recent Cambodian Genocide

DSC04947It would be hard to share our experience in Cambodia without mentioning the genocide that took place at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. It seemed to us that understanding anything about the current state of affairs and the Cambodian people required knowing more about this recent history. So this is a depressing post, but one I thought was important to write before we go on to share our other experiences in Cambodia.

Buddhist stuppa memorial at The Killing Fields

Buddhist stuppa memorial at The Killing Fields

During the period from 1975-79 after the end of the Cambodian civil war, the communist revolutionary Pol Pot wanted to return the country to an agrarian socialist society, to which end he tried to institute ‘year zero‘ meaning that ‘all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will (as an ideal) be purged and replaced from the ground up.’

The Khmer Rouge regime, under Pol Pot, arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. In Cambodia, teachers, artists, and intellectuals were especially singled out and executed during the purges accompanying Pol Pot’s Year Zero. Ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Cham, Cambodian Christians, and Budhhists monks were targeted and killed. Most families were separated, and Pol Pot even killed many of his closest co-conspirators and friends. It is estimated that somewhere around 2 million people were executed or died from starvation over the 4 year period, and there are many mass graves around the country, several of which we visited while we were there. You can read more about the history here.

It is the kind of knowledge that makes you sick to your stomach and just at a loss for even how to process it. While in Phnom Penh we visited The Killing Fields, the largest site of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge Regime. The whole area is now the largest memorial to those who lost their lives. We thought this memorial was really well done. Everyone gets a headset so that you can walk through the grounds at your own pace and listen to the various histories, stories, and some first hand accounts. This was a nice way to handle such a tragic place and allowed everyone to keep to themselves and reflect, which was much better than having to interact with other tourists or guides while hearing about this unfathomable history.

There are 7 levels in the memorial stuppa, each filled  with skulls, bones, and clothing from the victims.

There are 7 levels in the memorial stuppa, each filled with skulls, bones, and clothing from the victims.

Mass graves that have been excavated and then left as part of the memorial.

Mass graves that have been excavated and then left as part of the memorial.


Our tuk tuk driver to the Killing Fields and the prison gave us these masks to wear because the drive was so dusty.

Our tuk tuk driver to the Killing Fields and the prison gave us these masks to wear because the drive was so dusty.

We followed our visit to The Killing Fields by going back into Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the site of the S-21 prison where thousands of prisoners were held before being taken to Choeng Ek (The Killing Fields) for their execution. This prison was formerly a high school in the middle of the city, and it was just as depressing as you’d expect. In one exhibit, there was room after room of photos of the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records about its prisoners and many of them were forced to write up and sign false statements admitting to some made up crime against the regime.
Looking down into the Killing Caves near Battambang, Cambodia.

Looking down into the Killing Caves near Battambang, Cambodia. It is now a memorial to those who were executed by the Khmer Rouge and dumped into the caves. The small stupa to the right held the skulls in the photo below.


There were two of these boxes of bones and skills at the bottom of the Killing Caves.

Bones and skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge Regime in a memorial at the bottom of the Killing Caves.

We didn’t get to talk to many Cambodians about the genocide. Our conversations with folks were usually limited based on their English abilities, given that we didn’t speak any Cambodian. We felt like asking about the recent genocide was a touchy subject to broach if someone else didn’t bring it up first. While visiting The Killing Caves in Battambang, our tuk tuk driver/guide talked to us about it the most, but he hadn’t even born yet when it happened as he is currently in his late 20s. He was separated from his family when he was young, raised by his grandmother on the Thai/Cambodian border, and then sent to live with monks at a monastery for his teen years, which was where he learned English. So it sounded like he life was very much affected by the history even if he didn’t live through it himself. He was a wonderful guide and described some of the paintings and memorials around The Killing Caves, but he also seemed very emotionally detached from what he was telling us. Again, this was one of our few interactions talking with a Cambodian about it, but it wouldn’t surprise us if detachment is a pretty normal coping mechanism in order to just be able to live with this tragic history and move forward.

Crossing into Cambodia via the Mekong Delta

Taking a boat through the Mekong Delta

Taking a boat through the Mekong Delta

With a few days left before our Vietnam visas ran out, we wanted to figure out how to see some of the Mekong Delta while also getting ourselves across the Cambodian border and to Phnom Penh, our next stop. Planning all of this from Ho Chi Minh City during the end of Tet proved to make traveling a little more difficult than it normally would have been. After weighing our limited options we settled on a 2 day/1 night tour from HCMC through the Mekong Delta region that ended in Phnom Penh.
First boat en route from Chau Doc to Cambodian border.

First boat en route from Chau Doc, Vietnam, to a Cambodian border crossing.


Woman-powered boat ride

Woman-powered boat ride


John samples tea with natural honey on a bee farm.

John samples tea with natural honey on a bee farm.

This tour got mixed reviews on TripAdvisor and was pretty cheap for what it offered, but we figured as long as it got us from point A to point B it would be ok. The first day we felt a little beat up after being herded like cattle from one tourist stop to another. We were taken on tours of a coconut candy making operation, a rice crispy making operation, and a bee/honey farm, among others – with lots of touristy shopping options along the way.

After spending the night in one of the creepiest 1 star hotel rooms we’d had, and having several questionable meals, we were about to call the tour a complete bust. Then, on the final morning we began a series of boat rides from Chau Doc in Vietnam north along the Mekong river which would be our transportation for the last few hours to our designated border crossing into Cambodia. It was peaceful and beautiful and also felt like a great way to see a slice of real life along the Mekong. The boat trips more than made up for the previous day.

House in a floating village on the Mekong.

House in a floating village on the Mekong.


A tomato boat in a "floating market" on the Mekong

A tomato boat in a “floating market” on the Mekong

On a bamboo walkway we took to see a Muslim village and mosque in southern Vietnam.

On a bamboo walkway we took to see a Muslim village and mosque in southern Vietnam.


Mosque in southern Vietnam

Mosque in southern Vietnam


We passed these boys setting off a float for Tet.

We passed these boys releasing a float for Tet.

Built-up dirt path from the river to the first check point.

Built-up dirt path from the river to the first border check point.


Later on the (now-paved) path to the first check point.

Later on the (now-paved) path to the first border check point.

When we got off of the last boat, we were in Cambodia, and it was our most interesting border crossing of the trip. The extreme heat and more primitive physical conditions of this crossing made if feel like our most adventurous entry into a country.

We had to walk quite a ways on foot from the river to the first check point. Of course, we were snapping photos which quickly brought several guards running toward us forcefully screaming “no photo! no photo!” So we put the camera away and went through a second check point where our tour van and guide were waiting on the other side. How did it get there without us while we had to walk? We had no idea. At the second check point, one guard very slowly and meticulously approved the visas for each of us in our group of 7 while we patiently stood by with sweat running off of us in small rivers. Behind our guard, two officers were openly playing computer games. I’d like to think they were on a lunch break.

It was a long two days, but after our successful border crossing we were pretty happy to get into an air conditioned minivan for the final couple of hours to Phnom Penh.

At the first check point, before we were told to stop taking photos.

At the first border check point, right before we were told to stop taking photos.

This is one of the first sights we saw upon arriving in Phnom Penh.

And, this is one of the first sights we saw upon arriving in Phnom Penh.

Hot in Ho Chi Minh City

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

Even during the lead up to Tet – a holiday wherein cities emptied out – Ho Chi Minh’s [aka Saigon's] streets flowed with scooter traffic. We were parked in a part of town that allowed easy access to both historical monuments and cramped alleyways stuffed with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, barbers, card players, pho eaters, hawkers, and tourists.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.


And it was hot. Over the space of 3 weeks, we had travelled almost 1,000 miles North to South. Nearly freezing temperatures in Sa Pa had become steaming hot in Saigon. And we had the 6th floor room in a 7 story walk up. We were happy for the small balcony which we spent quality time on in the evening.

The recent history between Vietnam and the US seemed to hover around many of our interactions and experiences. In Ho Chi Minh City, we would spend time exploring this, visiting some of Saigon’s historical buildings and heading outside the metropolitain area to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an area in Southern Vietnam where anti-American VietCong attacked Saigon, the capital in the South, from a network of small tunnels that finally ended up stretching 400km.

View of HCMC skyline

View of HCMC skyline


Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.

Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.


One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake). One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake).


One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.

One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.


At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual ones used during the Vietnam War.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual tunnels used during the Vietnam War. The entire Cu Chi tourist area was thick with jungle vegetation and a shooting range on site gave tourists the opportunity to fire machine guns (for ~$1.75/bullet); the noise from the firing range combined with the intense heat and jungle setting offered an additional sensory experience to the history lesson.


And the tunnels the widened for tourists to go into.

And the tunnels they widened for tourists to visit. You could walk up to 100 meters in the tunnels but there were exits every 20 meters, and we found 20 meters was enough to give us the idea.

Buddhist Shrines and Hindu Grottoes

_DSC0716We rented motorbikes to get to Marble Mountain and at peppy speeds nearing 50kph (or 30 miles an hour) flew north up a four-lane highway that connected Hoi An to Da Nang. Offerings to ancestors littered the road as part of Tet. Fake paper cash, chocolate coins, glittering confetti, and other symbols of prosperity being ‘sent’ to the afterlife crept out into our lane. Most of it looked dangerous. Some of it was burning.

A karst formed of marble and limestone, Marble Mountain is twenty miles from Hoi An and topped with caves and tunnels filled with Buddhist sanctuaries, Hindu grottoes, and a Japanese pagoda or two. We were worried it would be too kitschy given the name but we ignored the hundreds of marble shops selling carvings of anything you could imagine and were pleasantly surprised. A long climb to the top rewarded us with odd paths leading to beautiful hidden treasures that our photos do a much better time of describing then these words do …

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain. Stairs in Asia are almost never even or the same size.


Large Buddha on Marble Mountain

Large Buddha on Marble Mountain. Don’t be fooled by the perspective; John’s head is not bigger than the Buddha’s.

Tiled dragon

Tiled dragon

Another view from Marble Mountain (this is also the site of 'China Beach' from the Vietnam War)

Another view from Marble Mountain (below is ‘China Beach’ well known from the late 80s TV show ‘China Beach’, also the Vietnam War)


Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave.

Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave. (No, behind John.)


This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it.

This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it. No Well of Souls but we had left behind our Staff of Ra.


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View of the centerpiece of the large cavern above.

Above us the centerpiece of the large cavern.

Sunrise Over Cham Ruins

_DSC0513 I’ve always been a big fan of visiting ruins from former civilizations, and taking a trip to see the Vietnamese equivalent of Ankgor Wat or Chichen Itza did not disappoint. The indigenous ‘Cham’ people controlled a large part of now-central Vietnam until 1832. Mỹ Sơn (pronounced Me Son in English), near Hoi An, is the largest site of Cham ruins and was considered to be the religious center of the Champa Dynasty. The ruins date back to the 4th through the 14th Century and Mỹ Sơn is an homage to the Hindu god, Shiva. Interestingly, Buddhism was adopted as the official religion for a few centuries in the middle, and by the end of their reign most Cham people had converted to Islam.

'My Son' Cham Ruins

‘My Son’ Cham Ruins

Shiva. Looters always seemed to destroy or steal the heads from all of the ruins we visited.

A bust of the god, Shiva. Looters always seemed to destroy or steal the heads from all of the ruins we visited.

We grudgingly awoke at 4:30 am to get to the ruins by sunrise. There were only two other people on our tour, and the four of us were the only people at the ruins.

The chill in the air, the mist hovering over the ground, a trickling brook, and the long forest path took us centuries away from the large parking lot. We arrived in the ruins to find them hugged, almost reclaimed by the lush jungle they were carved into many years ago. We listened to the guide’s short talk and then he allowed us to explore on our own. Being there for the morning crescendo of chirping birds and buzzing bugs while the sun rose over the intricate and crumbling ruins was peaceful and thrilling at the same time. For me, it was spiritual.

My favorite building. Of course it was the library.

My favorite building. Of course it was the library.

At sunrise

At sunrise

Our guide, no doubt laughing at one of his own jokes. He was a good guide, but I think there were a few things lost in translation.

Our guide, no doubt laughing at one of his own jokes. He was a good guide, but I think some of the humor was lost in translation.

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More detail on the side of the library

More detail on the side of the library

Some of the ruins are still being excavated (left); and the big hole at the bottom of the photo is a crater from a US carpet bomb.

Some of the ruins are still being restored (left); and the big hole at the bottom of the photo is a crater from a US bomb. We dropped many bombs on this site because the Vietcong used it as a headquarters.


Even the path getting to and from the ruins was spectacular. It was a very long walkway bordered by rows of towering trees, giving it a sort of fairytale feeling.

Even the path getting to and from the ruins was spectacular. It was a very long walkway bordered by rows of towering trees, giving it a sort of fairytale feeling.

Catching Our Breath in Hoi An

DSC03992Maybe it was because we were at the halfway point of our trip, or maybe it was because we’d finally gotten adjusted to being on the road, or simply because Hoi An was just that great. For whatever the many reasons, I really loved Hoi An and while we were there I felt like things finally clicked. Lots of things came together that allowed us to finally feel relaxed and more in the moment.

Thu Bon River

Thu Bon River


Hoi An has a lot going for it. This town of a little over 120,000 people is in the center of Vietnam, and sits on the eastern coast between a river and the ocean. While we were there, the weather was perfect, our hotel was both awesome and cheap (and at 8 days, it marked our longest stay in one hotel), we were near a really quaint riverfront, and we were also a few minute bike ride from the beach. Not to mention the food was really good and there was lots of good shopping.

on the riverfront

on the riverfront


Once a major SE Asian trading port town, Hoi An has a very well-preserved historic town center because the river’s connection to the sea silted up a couple hundred years ago, essentially freezing it in time. Today, strict preservation rules keep it from being changed too much and it’s a really beautiful town. I loved that it was just bustling enough to feel exciting and not boring, yet small enough to get around on foot or bicycles. Maybe it was the pleasant sunny weather, or my frame of mind while we were there, or the fact that most locals there are considerably more wealthy than the average Vietnamese person, but everyone seemed really friendly and happy. I loved biking around the town, seeing street after street filled with atmostpheric hanging lanterns, and row upon row of beautiful flowers for the new year. It would’ve been really difficult not to love this town.

Here I'm wearing the skirt I had made, with a hand-painted design.

Here I’m wearing the skirt I had made, with a hand-painted design. I had everything else mailed home.

Hoi An is also world famous for its tailors, who can sew up anything you desire in about 24 hours. There are over six hundred tailor’s shops around the town. I had a few things made that ended up fitting me like a glove and turned out well, but at the end of the day it was a mixed experience. Shipping the clothes turned out to be more expensive than I was led to believe it would be (the cost kept going up the closer and closer I got to handing over my credit card). My tailor turned out to be a bit shady, and I had to threaten to leave a bad review for her on TripAdvisor in order to end the negotiating and get her to agree to mail my stuff home. It was more disappointing than anything, given that I thought we’d developed a friendly rapport over the 3 or 4 days that I came in and out for fittings, but I think she saw an opening and tried to take advantage of my friendliness. At the end of the day I got some cute clothes that were handmade to fit me perfectly, but I did pay for the experience.

We also happened to be in Hoi An for the first few days of Tết, or the Vietnamese New Year. This made it an especially festive time to be in Vietnam, and Hoi An in particular. They had a lantern festival on the river, a special large bonsai tree display, and the whole town was just filled to the brim with flowers the whole time we were there.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!


We stayed in Hoi An for a little over a week. We relaxed at the pool, swam at the beach, took a few lovely bicycle rides through beautiful rice paddies, planned out our next few weeks, and took a couple of cool day trips to see some ancient Hindu ruins and Buddhist temples, more on those in another post.
New friends! Hanging out with Chris and Kate, from S. Africa

New friends! Hanging out with Chris and Kate from S. Africa, who we met on our Ha Long Bay boat cruise


John went into these rice paddies to take photos of the women in the fields, and then this farmer talked him into donning the traditional hat. He was a character; he kept touching John's goatee and chest hair, and then even slapped his butt - all while laughing hysterically. Of course he then wanted money, but he settled for taking our half empty bottle of water. I hope he gave it to one of those women doing the work.

John went into these rice paddies to take photos of the women in the fields, and then this farmer talked him into donning the traditional hat. He was a character; he kept touching John's goatee and chest hair, and then even slapped his butt – all while laughing hysterically. Of course he then wanted money, but he settled for taking our half empty bottle of water. I hope he gave it to one of those women doing the work.

Bridge over the river at night

Bridge over the river at night


Every night women and kids would sell these floating lanterns for making New Years' wish.

Every night women and kids would sell these floating lanterns for sending out on the water and making New Years’ wishes.


2013 is the year of the snake

2013 is the year of the snake


Another of the many interesting lanterns in the lantern festival

Another of the many interesting lanterns in the lantern festival


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At the beach. It was a really beautiful and oddly unpopulated spot. There were lots of fishermen and this one in particular was struggling to get his boat in - we couldn't believe he was doing it on his own.

At the beach. It was a really beautiful and oddly unpopulated spot. There were lots of fishermen and this one in particular was struggling to get his boat in – we couldn’t believe he was doing it on his own.

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