Greetings fellow Misadventurists! In this brand new video – part 1 of 2 videos featuring Northeastern Laos – Stax and Beej (a.k.a. the Misadventurists) run into a bit of a snag (actually, several of them) while barrelling down the Nam Ou River.
Starting from the riverside town of Muang Khua, we cruise down to within spitting distance of the roadless village of Muang Ngoi, a charming town only accessible by 4WD or (more commonly) by river. That’s when we experience a little bit of engine trouble…. Enjoy!
BRAND NEW VIDEO: Hanoi to Cat Ba Island! We travel by bus, boat and motorcycle through the wild karst mountains of this beautiful island on the southern shore of the famous Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Here’s the result.
WE PULL into Hoi An, Vietnam at around 6:30 am, jittery, exhausted, and frankly relieved to be alive.
The 12 hours previous to our arrival have been a nightmarish, non-stop, seeming suicide attempt by an overnight bus driver who insisted on barreling around 25km/hr corners next to 500m sheer cliffs at twice the speed limit, blowing past oncoming buses with centimeters to spare, crashing over potholes and speed bumps at maximum velocity, and slamming on his brakes for traffic at the last possible minute before collision.
Overnight buses, like the one we have taken from Nha Trang north along the coast to Hoi An, are a lot cheaper than other transportation in Vietnam for long distances. But in our experience, the extra grey hairs aren’t really worth it. If you save a few bucks but lose life, limb or family member, hasn’t your penny-pinching been in vain?
But we digress. Now we are in Hoi An, and the gentle vibe of this small historic city calm our nerves immediately. Perhaps it’s the feeling that we could actually be in the 18th century, an ambience heightened by the local government’s decision to turn off all power in the town from late morning to early evening. While this proves slightly inconvenient at first (especially with no A.C. or fans in 33 C heat) , we quickly adjust.
Hoi An has one of the longest histories of any city in Southeast Asia.
From the 7th through the 10th century the Cham people controlled the city and its spice trade, sharing the town with a Japanese settlement on the North bank of the river. After the Cham moved south toward Nha Trang, Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, and even Dutch traders moved in to pick up the trade, building Hoi An into one of the most important ports in the region.
Eventually, however, political and geographical changes led to the decline of Hoi An as a trading center. The Thu Bon river estuary silted up and large trading ships could no longer ply the water route from the coast to the town. Now the town is known mainly as a center for traditional ceramic and textile art – a designation which becomes obvious to anyone who explores the famed Old Town.
BICYCLING THE ANCIENT CITY
Bicycle is the best way to explore the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods, all of which have interesting side-streets and alleys to explore.
We find a hidden gem of a tea shop down one alley. May Concept has a huge selection of gourmet teas and iced drinks and a very friendly staff, one of whom, Ngoc, shows us to the rooftops to get a birds-eye view of the old town. (Sadly, the Internet has informed us that since our visit, May Concept has closed indefinitely.)
As visitors to Vietnam may know, each region and even city in the country has their own famous local dish. So, we feel it’s our duty to stop at a local restaurant for two Hoi An delicacies – Cao Lau, a spicy noodle dish, and Bun Thit Nu’ong, a local spin on vermicelli noodles and grilled pork.
After sampling the cuisine, we pedal down toward the riverfront, where the Thu Bon River lazes through the countryside toward the muddy coast.
THU BON RIVERFRONT
Winding lanes lined with paper lanterns and bakeries and shops housed in French colonial-era buildings lure shoppers and photographers alike as we near the water.
The Thu Bon drifts lazily for a few kilometers from this riverfront before emptying its silty self into the Pacific Ocean – a geographical advantage that the numerous riverfront tour boat operators take full advantage of.
A good way to wrap up the day in Hoi An: get dinner at one of the numerous excellent French or Vietnamese restaurants near the riverfront, and then take a night walk of the bridges spanning the many canals criss-crossing the city. The streets and the river light up nightly with hundreds upon hundreds of festive bright red and yellow paper lanterns and everyone is out to enjoy the cool evening air.
AN BANG BEACH
It’s so hot the next day that we decide to bicycle out to the most popular swimming beach in Hoi An, An Bang Beach.
This white-sand beach is located just northeast of the village. It’s a flat and incredibly scenic 5km pedal (or about a 30 minute ride if you’re slow and prone to stop every 5 seconds for photos, like us) on mainly packed-dirt roads over saltwater creeks and through coastal rice paddies. Though we highly recommend this ride, you must remember to exercise extreme caution and defer to the traffic while sharing the roads and bridges with cars, as you will need to do mainly near the beach. Vietnam has a….ahem….different view of road etiquette in the best of circumstances.
Storms blow just a few miles off the coast as we arrive, but luckily the water is still safe to swim, so we jump in and made a day of it. If you’re intimidated by the currents, you can always rent one of the handy wooden tubs (the ones with little red or orange flags attached to them) available from local resorts scattered all over the beach. Though somewhat tippy, they are super fun to paddle around in.
LEAVING HOI AN
Though we’ve had only three days in Hoi An (with almost a full day spent napping after our night bus horror show), the easy-going charm and beauty of this village has seeped into us. What was supposed to be basically a stop-over between Nha Trang and nearby Da Nang has turned into an experience of its own.
We can see why so many artists and restaurant owners have decided to make this little village their home. We’ll definitely return!
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.
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.
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.
To the south lay the remote Cardamom range, to the north Tiger Peak, and farther still the distant Thai border. Tigers reportedly still roam this border, but you’re much more likely to catch malaria than a swipe from a cat’s paw there.
Below our feet are massive caverns that practically hollow out the mountain’s core. Each night at the same time, a swarm of 2 million bats shoot out into the sky – in a twisting, unbroken stream lasting 20 minutes, appearing as one sinuous organism – to feed on the evening insects.
Closer to the where we stand here, the so-called Killing Caves bear witness to a dark Khmer Rouge era. Buddhist monks perform daily blessings at the bottom of the 70 foot deep cave for the ancestors of the local people, thousands of whom died there – most by being casually tossed into the pit along with their children and babies.
Nearby the caves stand Russian-made artillery guns used to shoot at deserters 1000 feet below who were attempting to flee across the Thai border. Later we met an ex-soldier in Phnom Penh whose sister survived that run just 40 years ago.
On a lighter note, the kid in the tree is our self-appointed guide and protector. He lived at the temple you see in the video, and is calling to his friends across the canyon. He insisted on accompanying us, then became increasingly exasperated with our slow pace and frequent photo stops. Wherever you are, kid…sorry for our clueless farang ways!
We said goodbye to Battambang at the crack of dawn. We had to catch a tuk tuk to the bus station and our reserved seats for Siem Reap. We bid adieu to our gracious host Jen and a couple of cooks that were up at this hour and hurried to make the departure time our booking company gave us.
It turns out we could have slept in. When the driver dropped us off at a station on the far side of town (a common spatial arrangement whereby the bus driver’s cousin’s tuk tuk service gets business hauling tourists downtown – which is ingenious) the sweating clerk already seemed harried. The temperature had already reached the mid-80s by 6:30 am, and the ticket station was just a metal desk outside.
He stared blankly at our printed schedule. Then he simply shook his head. “No bus.”
We stared back. He pointed at a schedule scratched in chalk on a board above his desk. The board indicated the earliest Siem Reap bus at 10:45 – almost 4 hours.
As is sometimes the case when you book something over the phone in Cambodia without obtaining eye contact with an agent, the schedules quoted by the bus booking agency were off. So far off, they could have just as easily been created by consulting astrological charts as travel times.
The bus he’d pointed to didn’t have the same name as our company-issued ticket. Still we reckoned we’d see what happened, resolving to sit in the steadily climbing heat and dust and and hope for the best
Large families sat resigned and silent on the benches lined up across the lot, their luggage consisting of taped cardboard boxes and used rice bags, their children draped like so many garment bags over the laps of mothers and grandmothers. Stoic faces hinted that these benches had been their homes for some time.
A couple of scrawny chickens with matted feathers squawked and ran breakneck between the benches, zigzagging around skinny legs, chasing each other like schoolkids at recess.
Two masked trash collectors – tiny resilent-looking and silent women in at least their sixties – parked their pushcarts near the curb and began sweeping. Here in Battambang at least, collectors have no special equipment or trucks. They gather the trash with scraggly rake-thingies, bend down and pick it up -often bare-handed – and toss it in their pushcarts.
I watched them until everything grew bleary. I longed to lean back in the shade and get some shut-eye (like Stax was), but worry about missing whatever bus might suddenly arrive prevented sleep.
At around 9 am, a guy and a girl with faded little Canadian flags sewn to their packs arrived at the station and waited on a nearby bench. Girl: scrawny with the ubiquitous billowy elephant pants and Angkor Beer tank top. Guy: grubby polo, beer gut and full-on yak beard. These guys were Siem Reap-bound for sure. I kept a close, but carefully non-invasive, eye on their movements. If they perked up when a bus arrived, I perked up right along with them, half-reaching for my bag.
When a Siem Reap bus did eventually come at 9:30 – over an hour early- nobody even looked at our ticket. It soon became clear that things were…well, different….on this bus. For one thing, the balding and heavy-set driver was, from the moment we all sat down, engaged in an epic, totally one-sided rant that lasted for hours. As the bus banged out of the potholed lot, his sharp yelling reached everybody seated.
A few locals glanced at each other, but no one seemed concerned. They’d likely seen this before. They were familiar of course with traffic in Cambodia. If I had to drive a huge wide Korean-made bus everyday with motorbikes swarming and cutting me off on narrow lanes, constantly delayed by potholes and road repairs and flooding and the ubiquitous “tourist police” shaking me down for bribes, I’d be a basket case too.
The two young bus assistants, lanky and floppy haired and flip-flopped like all bus assistants, seemed deeply amused at the driver’s apoplexy. They kept covering their mouths to hide their laughter . He’d pause for a breath, and one of them would lean down and comment slyly to him, starting him off again.
I could have dismissed it all as harmless eccentricity if he didn’t also insist on using our bus to emphasize his points. He swung the steering wheel in wide turns; steel screeched against steel as he ground the clutch to the nub. The rear axle nearly bottomed out several times on potholes he hardly slowed for.
Long strings of syllables flew out. His hammy fists pounded on the dash to emphasize something or other I couldn’t hope to comprehend.
Eventually even the assistants grew bored of egging him on and sunk into their smartphones. That didn’t stop him. The ride to Siem Reap lasted over four hours, and he babbled on for a good three of those hours. If I had to guess, I’d say he was in the midst of a prolonged nervous breakdown. It was like being at a Trump rally, but the words made slightly more sense to me.
Of course, Stax slept peacefully and profoundly through all of this. Her head had hit the back of the seat and BAM! She was out. I was left awake to ponder how a person comes to the state in their lives to which this driver had come.
Notwithstanding the craziness, we eventually did arrive in Siem Reap safely. Any bus trip in Cambodia that ends with you in one piece, at your destination, and not on fire in any way, can be counted as a success (see an earlier post about the burned-out and still-smoking shell of a bus we passed on the way to Battambang).