SON TRA PENINSUALA lies just 8 kilometers by motorbike east of Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast but feels like a different world than the buzzing small city nearby. It’s truly a refreshing break from the city’s noise.
A bike trip into the interior of Son Tra is an adventure into a green wonderland with distinct flora and fauna that has earned the whole peninsula the designation of a nature reserve.
The small peninsula also boasts pristine beaches, twisty motorbike paths clinging to sheer cliffs, forest hikes, and sprawling temples.
The highest point on the peninsula is Son Tra Mountain (also known as Monkey Mountain to American soldiers stationed nearby during the American War), a rocky 850 foot rise with panoramic views. It’s a relatively short walk to the top on a concrete path – or if you’re in for a driving challenge, a transmission-busting slog up a crazily steep and narrow motorbike route.
Another highlight of the trip is Linh Ung Pagoda, with its colorful Buddhist statuary and its unique 67-meter-tall Lady Buddha statue.
Our favorite feature of Linh Unh Pagoda has to be the Arhat statues that surround the main plaza. Arhat are figures in Buddhism who have attained enlightenment through meditation and deed. The sculptor, Nguyen Viet Minh, carved whimsical expressions on the enlightened figures along with their mythical animal companions.
Son Tra Peninsula is definitely worth a day trip. If you’re comfortable riding a motorbike and can handle lots of curves and hills, we would recommend renting your own transportation. If not, there are tons of tours leaving from Da Nang that capture all the major sights.
We will definitely head back someday to catch all the things we invariably missed. Until then, onward up the coast.
On the road from Da Nang City to Hoi An on Vietnam’s central coast lies one of the most stunning road passes in the world: the Hai Van Pass, beloved by motor enthusiasts. Beej and Stax (a.k.a, the Misadventurists) couldn’t pass up the chance to tackle the pass (and learn a little bit about history, and pig grooming, along the way!)
All filming by Stacy Libokmeto with Canon EOS 60D. Music by M83, Gordon Lightfoot and Hans Zimmer (full credits in the end titles).
One of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam is the trip up the Central Coast from Mui Ne to Nha Trang.
While there are several tourist attractions along this route, the biggest draw is simply the chance to be out in the natural beauty of this coastline. A storm had just passed through when we began this motorbike trip south of Nha Trang, hence the crazy cloud action.
All photos and videos below were taken on Cam Ranh beach at magic hour and near sunset. Shot by us with Canon EOS 60D and Panasonic Lumix GH3.
Relying on someone else to translate your thoughts while in another country can sometimes lead to hilarious moments, moments you might not even realize are hilarious until months later when you’re going through your footage with a different translator and those strange answers and odd looks you kept getting from your interview subject suddenly makes sense.
The following took place at a wedding in Cambodia in which we were interviewing Navi, a friend of the bride and groom, about weddings. Until our recent translator translated this exchange, I had no idea there was a little bit of meandering during our interview.
Stax:Does she think weddings are important and if so why?
Translator (in Cambodian):Do you think the bride and the groom are important?
Navi:Yes they are important.
Translator (in Cambodian):Why are the bride and groom important?
Navi:Because I’ve known them since they were little.
Translator to me (in English):Because she’s known them since they were little.
Stax: (Internal dialogue: Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Just ask again.) So why does she think weddings important?
Translator to Navi (in Cambodian):Why are the bride and groom important?
Navi:Because I’ve known them since they were little.
Translator to me (in English):Because she’s known them since they were little.
Here’s another Video Snapshot for our beautiful followers.
Bokor Mountain Hill Station in Kampot province, Cambodia, was built by the colonial French as a resort for their brass at the top of a 3,200 ft peak in the Elephant Mountains.
In the next decades various occupiers used the run-down shell as a strategic outpost to spy for invaders along the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Then the place was simply abandoned, left to be overgrown by thick jungles and surrounded by one of the most diverse arrays of plant and animal species in Cambodia.
But market forces and profit motives made this Edenic state short-lived. Illegal poaching and logging decimated the thick highland old-growth forests and native species like big cats and elephants.
And recently Cambodia’s oil and gas giant Sokimex Investment Group, with it’s Sokha resorts, announced a plan that will lay waste to the rest. The energy monopoly, in league with the government, bought 10% of the land atop the mountain (making the “National Park” moniker meaningless) building roads and vast parking lots for a gigantic private hotel/casino complex that will be the largest in Cambodia.
So far only the Thansavour Hotel is open, so if you want to experience the park with only minimal traffic jams and litter, your time is now: large swathes of rather spooky jungle, plus the impressive multi-cascading Popokvil Falls, are still accessible for now.
(Warning: we strongly recommend hiring a cheap local guide if you would like to do any off-road hiking – unexploded land mines from the Khmer Rouge era still litter the hillsides. Only a local with experience will know which forest trails are safe!)
This final installment in our serial short film takes us on a rather hallucinatory journey through the final temple. Immortalized by the Tomb Raider films, Ta Prohm is an atmospheric, tumble-down wonder that can only be reached via a half-mile pathway through thick jungle.
Stax wanted to get across our total exhaustion, with sweltering 100 degree heat adding to mounting fatigue. The thickness of the heat and the cries of the jungle birds, along with the weirdness of the locale and a relentless stream of comically well-dressed tourists joined together to make this the most colorful of our temple experiences.
A lot of the experiences we’ve had traveling the world are easy to classify and relate to people who haven’t been to those places. But ask us about Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on Earth – visible from space with the naked eye – created by the visionary leaders of the Hindu Khmer empire out of sheer excess of imagination – and we don’t even know how to begin. So many sensations, so much heat and history, and so much footage.
How does one even narrow down the Angkor Wat experience? That’s what we asked ourselves. Our answer? Three Temples, a serialized short film unlike anything we’ve produced before.
In the film – which we’ll release in four installments over the next week or so – we roam three giant structures at Cambodia’s fabled Angkor Wat in 100 degree heat, all while having had practically no sleep.
Stax’ idea was to try and capture, using film and music, just what this challenging and ultimately rewarding experience was like. And Before Dawn is Stax’ rather spooky one-minute intro to the film. Enjoy – and oh yeah, watch out for Sunrise over Angkor Wat in a couple of days!
Camera by Stax and Beej. Edited and narrated by Stax.
Music: “Mariner 4/ Project Blue Beam” is by The Fucked up Beat from their album Europa II and is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (aka Music Sharing) 3.0 International License. No changes were made to this music.
After our long journey by bus and tuk tuk, we find ourselves at the Happy Guesthouse, at the end of Street 20 in Siem Reap. Tons of other hostels and guesthouses surround it buty they don’t diminish its secluded and serene atmosphere: a yellow cement three-story structure with curved staircases behind a patio restaurant.
Because we’ve wandered in early, we wait for the room to be ready. Everyone at check-in glued to a small TV above the patio, upon which unfolds a supernatural Thai drama series that looks to have been produced with Sony camcorders in 1989. It has everything that is good: evil gangsters, gunfights, weeping waifs, ghosts popping up in the back seats of cars to exact revenge for their deaths.
The family who runs the guesthouse plays 6 hours of this show a day between serving food and arranging travel, with the other 6 hours devoted to a Chinese drama set in Confucian times. According to the historical records this show consulted, nobody ever smiled in Confucian times, not even once, and in fact always looked as if they had the beginnings of a migraine. The actors do a lot of standing motionless and glaring at each other from across rooms. It’s probably contractual, to avoid damaging the costumes consuming 90% of the show’s budget.
After check-in we discover we are not allowed to wear shoes or flip-flops inside the guesthouse. I’m not sure it’s a Buddhist thing or a hygiene thing (or both), but the family is serious about it. If we forget – okay, I’m the only forgetter, since Stax’ ancestors hails from islands that forbid shoes in the home – the housekeeping girls immediately notice and they jump up and exclaim something in Khmer (while still smiling of course) and point accusingly at your feet. This must have happened 20 times.
We see these two girls scurrying around daily doing laundry and cleaning rooms. At night they sleep in the corner of the ground floor below the guest rooms, on thin mattresses wrapped in mosquito netting. With obliterated backpackers stumbling in and tripping over them all night in the wee hours, it’s beyond me how the poor girls can work all day.
We heartily recommend the Happy Guesthouse, for two reasons:
1. You’ll never twitch a muscle figuring out transportation anywhere. Along with the ever-present tuk tuks and the mountain bikes they rent to get around Siem Reap, the front desk books long distance travel and skips the usual overcharge for commission. Plus they make decent eggs and breakfast baguettes.
2. The outdoor pool with swim-up bar right next door at Hotel 20th Street. For 3 measly dollars (as a non-hotel guest), you can spend the entire day swimming and lazing on the shady deck with iced coffee in your hand. In April (summertime in Cambodia) with miles of temples to explore, in 100-degrees-plus after having foolishly declined the A/C in our room, this pool comes in very handy. It’s so nice, some folks settle as long-term guests in the pricey Hotel 20th Street so they never have to leave it.
Now, while Siem Reap is best known for its proximity to the temple complex of Angkor Wat, its second claim to fame is the nightlife.
Street 20 lies 2 km (20 minutes walking, 10 minutes biking) from the famous Pub Street, where many backpackers stay in big hostels to be part of the action. We decide to cycle down the Siem Reap river and check it out despite our low tolerance for watery beer.
The sheer amount of neon light and overall noise level of Pub Street overwhelms. All through the neighborhood, European dance clubs, American blues bars, British wood panel pubs and Aussie dive bars flourish side-by-side. Music blasts from every door.
We walk into The Angkor What?, a rock club claiming to be the oldest pub in Siem Reap. Inside we encounter a dark square of a room with glow-in-the-dark art covering the walls, plus a musty, ingrained patchouli odor which pairs well with the decor.
All around us, expats and tourists crawl out of their shady holes in search of cheap beer, entertainment, shopping bazaars surrounding Pub Street, and food that doesn’t scare them (it boggles the mind that someone would travel across the world only to seek out the cuisine of their home country). They also come out for foot massages at the numerous parlors.
Stax, who has never to my knowledge turned down a foot rub from anyone, settles in for one of the massage sessions. She passes, thankfully, on another incomprehensibly popular Pub Street pastime: a bunch of dirty tanks full of gray water with swarms of little fish inside that eat the dead skin off your feet. “Fish can do massage”, the sign on the tank helpfully suggests.
I have some, ah, concerns about this procedure:
1. Why would you want a bunch of munching fish to deplete the protective layer of dead skin which shields your tender pink new skin from the blazing sun, bugs, manure and filth in the streets? What if said fish carry some hitherto-unknown disease?
2. The tanks themselves are plain unhygienic. I never see any of the women running the place changing the water. Furthermore, everyone plunging their feet in this rancidness has been walking around through the afore-mentioned filth of the streets for days with sweaty feet clad only in flip-flops.
While waiting for Stax to be done with her foot rub, I grab a beer at a place next to three farang guys (foreigners). They’re talking about, of all things, web marketing. Siem Reap would be more attractive for digital nomads, goes the consensus among these lads, if only the city could improve its infrastructure.
Choking down the flat last swig of my watery lager, I suggest that maybe Cambodia should improve their beer and then work up to luring coveted digital nomads with communications towers. Kind of like, if you beer them, they will come. The farang stare at me as if I was an alien.
I feel something suddenly squiggling on my flip flop and then a scratching on the top of my foot. Time slows. With a mounting horror, I swing my head downward. A gigantic, two inch long Southeast Asian flying cockroach is just sitting on my toes like it belongs there, antenna waving merrily, eyes flicking about.
I involuntarily lift my leg and kick, hard. The roach takes to the air, flying off to terrify someone else (or perhaps get a quick bathe in some poor chap’s tea – see below):
I spend the next 20 seconds squeezing my eyes shut and suppressing violent chills seizing my body.
Now, I can handle roaches and bugs generally if I know they’re around – jungle trek, what have you, fine and dandy. But when you’re a little buzzed on a city street, dead tired, and not expecting an insect the size and weight of a field mouse to dive down onto your foot..ahhhhh, can’t even think about it anymore.
So much for Pub Street. It has been a long, LONG day that had started at 4:30 am in Battambang. Tomorrow, we have nothing planned except a long swim and lie-around on deck chairs at the pool, sipping iced coffee and chilling.
We ride our rented bikes back up the river to the Happy Guesthouse and creep past the fitfully sleeping lobby girls wrapped in their mosquito nets. We spend the rest of the night tossing and sweating in our stifling hot room, wishing we had sprung extra for the A/C.