Holidays and Other Excursions

Month: December 2014

Luang Prabang to Siem Reap

Day 7 Monday 22 December 2014

Until now all of the holiday arrangements had run well; timetables had been observed, guides knowing well what they were doing and it all has gone very smoothly.

We get to the very nice small airport at Luang Prabang and check in.  Just as we complete this a notice is posted at the desk and we are going to be delayed by nearly two hours.  The guide offers to take us back into town – but we decline – who knows the flight might suddenly be right time again.  He does however notify his office and we hope the message reaches the other end.

So we head through the passport control – only to find that there is not much in the way of refreshment the other side.  Anyway I am a fat unfit b******, so missing a meal will not do me that much harm.  And the passenger information systems continue to tell us that the flight was leaving on time even when we were clearly nearly two hours past that time.

We see the arrival – it is the same plane as the one on which arrived from Hanoi a few days earlier.  It unloads and reloads rapidly so that departure is pretty rapid, recovering some of the lost time.

Consequently our flight arrives in Siem Reap nearly two hours down and thanks to ebola we have to fill in another form to say we have not recently been in West Africa – which means we take ages to exit the airport.  The passport control team are not particularly speedy either.  Once outside our guide is not in evidence and we carry out several checks before electing to get a taxi to our hotel.

The route to our hotel takes us along what seems to be the main drag from the aiport with numerous hotels, all of which have lots of glittering lights, snowmen, reindeers, Santa Claus and Xmas trees – here it seems there is some acknowledgment.

Our hotel is the Tara Angkor which is graded 4 star, but to our mind is perhaps a little lacking in some respects.  Dinner in the hotel and the prices are again unbelievably low.  The wife has a burger for about $4 whilst I stick with rather more local food.

Amazing how a day doing nothing is tiring.  So time for bed.

Luang Prabang Day 3

Day 6 Sunday 21 December 2014

Good morning, a much later call today and the hotel, having been very quiet yesterday was much busier this morning with a wider selection at breakfast.

We head into LP itself first to take the flower arrangement to the Watermelon stupa and with guidance from our guide I seem to manage to get it is almost dead centre under the watemelon!

There is also a replica of the gold buddha statue here, the original having moved to the capital.  There is a replica of the emerald buddha which originally came from India at the same time as the gold buddha, although the originals are now in separate countries.

Our main excursion today is into the countryside, first to visit a Hmong (pronounced Mong) village where they have commenced the festival so the children in particular are wearing their “national” dress which  for the young girls seems to require a hat which looks very much like a lampshade!

As usual pictures are on Flickr

We progress onto the National Park at the Kuangsi waterfall where there is a small reserve for a small number of remaining black bears.  From there we steadily walk up the hill past the lower waterfalls and a number of very clear pools where it is possible to swim.  We choose not to swim – it looks cold and I do not feel like spending the rest of the day feeling slightly damp and cold – it is a warmer day – at least for us – the locals however are still wrapped up with woolies and coats.

Eventually we reach the main fall which looks wonderful, although I am not sure the photos do it justice!

Our guide and driver have transported a lunch for us and serve us with a picnic – including hot food at a table adjacent to the falls.  Does food always taste better in the open air and even better still in the open air adjacent to some attractive scenery?

Having had a busy couple of days we opt for an early finish and return to the hotel so this blog gets started and photos get uploaded.  Some extra sleep is not a bad idea either!  This is supposed to be a holiday after all.

Our day was rounded off by a trip back into town. First to wander through the night market. Another market, this time along the main street which is completely closed to normal traffic, although motorbikes seem to manage to thread their way through. Some more purchases before a local beer in a street side restaurant. Then we head to a “French” restaurant – the “Elephant” which produced some good food – but the cost was an awful lot higher than the previous evening. Another motorised tuc tuc – but this time we are wearing our coats and so do no feel the cold so badly.

Luang Prabang Day 2

Day 5 Saturday 20 December 2014

An early call this morning as we are going into LP with guide and driver to observe the giving of alms to the monks.  All of the many monks start at one end of town and steadily progress through the entire town to end up at the main monastery we had visited the previous day.  So soon after six in the morning one side of the road, towards the end of the procession which is not so heavily populated, are ladies with bowls of rice (some have others items) and on the other side numerous onlookers like ourselves.

A gong sounds to give notice of the approaching monks and in groups, representing different monastries they steadily process past.  Eventually the light improves sufficiently to permit photographs which are on the Flickr site.

Somewhere around the middle of the procession there is a break and the ladies then have the potential to refill their bowls of rice.  At the end of the ladies in or group is a small child and she does not give the monks any food but instead receives and it is explained that it is known that she is from a poorer family and the monks share the food they have received with the poorer groups.

We later find that our guide was a monk for a number of years.  If the land canot support the younger members of the family then joining a monastery  provides food and a good education and is beneficial for all concerned.  So Buddhism rather than a national dependence on the state – are we institutionalised Buddhists?

Heading back to the transport we walked through the morning market – it opens at 5 and the villagers from the surrounding area bring in all sorts of goods to be sold.  This covers  vegetables, meat, fish plus scarves and other goods of all descriptions.  There are photos – but again there do not seem to be any shortages of anything important and indeed in terms of vegetables these seem to be excellent in quality and quantity.

Anyway back to the hotel for breakfast and to shed our overcoats.  We have a big excursion today when we return to the town and the riverside to take a boat upstream for about two hours to visit a cave where the gold buddha was originally kept when brought to the country.  After the climb the previous day we decline the visit to the upper cave as we are told it contains not only buddha statues but also bats!

We cross the river to a small village and we walk through to where they keep the elephants in a small reserve in winter.  In summer they are used to move logs so are still working elephants.  Fed with numerous bananas they seem quite happy and relaxed even if necessarily tethered.

Then we wander back through the village for lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Mekong river – the sunshine is brilliant and it is again a warm day.  On the return trip to LP we stop at a village where they can show us numerous scarves and the wife is able to buy some items for a close friend’s impending birthday.  Here we hear the almost universal request “Do you want to buy a scarf?” in a polite but slightly singing voice which cannot be done justice in print.  This is repeated as we walk through the village as there are numerous sellers ans more scarves and table runners than the one village can possibly produce.  However thy are all very nice pieces and each house appears to have its own weaving loom we do wondr just how much weaving can possibly be achieved locally.

Whilst the village is obviously organised for visits like ours it is also notable that most of the houses have huge satellite dishes (athough rusty) and therefore presumably some form of power supply and television.  It may be rural but certainly they are not cut off from the outside world in any form.  Even here there is a well decorated and maintained temple – it reminds me of Greece where there may be economic problems but the religious houses are well maintained.

Travelling with the current our return journey is a little faster than outward and so towards the end of the afternoon we return to the hotel.

The evening commences with a Baci ceremony for the four travellers where about 20 local people welcome us to Laos.  About 10 ladies plus a couple of musicians sing a welcome and then a dancing group entertain us with their skills  and a number of different dances.  The end of the ceremony requires us to present our wrists and they tie pieces of string around each wrist to represent close ties between Laos and ourselves.  We are also presented with a flower arrangement which I receive from the Village elder (Shaman / priest) and I have to present this the following day at the Watermelon stupa.

We were a little amazed at this being laid on for just the four of us and we were somewhat relieved when a Mexican couple joined us during the proceedings.

Our evening was rounded off by dinner in the hotel and I can report that yet another excellent repast was consumed by the travellers.  The hotel kitchen can cook and the only thing we find difficult is that the concept of “courses” seems to be unknown as the soup arrives and the remaining food arrives almost immediately when the waiting team return to the kitchen!  After such a long day we are glad to retire to bed.

Good night.


Luang Prabang

Day 4 Friday 19 December 2014

Whilst I am sure that there are many other aspects of Vietnam which could be seen, we shall see the south of the country later on our trip; for the moment our location must change and it is back to the airport and a small twin turbo-prop ATR72 airplane to Luang Prabang.  I have seen many spellings; this is the one I am adopting and indeed will probably shorten it to LP throughout this and the next couple of posts.

The flight is over largely green countryside, largely invisible thorough the cloud layer, wth noticeably much more hills / mountains as we close on LP. Also as we approach LP there are are several rivers in evidence.  The airport here is tiny and we have a walk across the concrete from our plane to the entrance at the far end of the building.  Later we will establish that it is standing much closer to the departure gate.  And alongside are much smaller local Lao planes!

A wonderful queue now develops as we all have to have visas and so we hand over passport and visa form that we have completed.  Join another queue to hand over $35.  Well except there is another $1 service charge.  So hand over $36!  Then your passport is duly stamped with a visa attached and you can enter the country!

Reclaim suitcases and yes our new guide is there and waiting.  We head off into town crossing the Nam Khan river and he takes us around the headland where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong and we have our first view of the mighty Mekong river which is the main point of this holiday.  We also drive pass the “Tamarind” restaurant which he recommends for good dining this evening.  This young man clearly knows what we like!

First a trip round the main temple.  There are a large number in LP but the monks all come to this one at breakfast time having collected through the town (see tomorrow).  This gives a reminder on the Buddhist culture and we also see the Chariot used to convey the body of the last King of Laos.

Towards the other end of town we stop at Phousy Hill and have to climb to the top – some 330 steps.  And it goes to prove we are not fit as we struggle with the climb!  About a third of the way up a monk is sat and has excellent English for a conversation with my wife.  Along the way there are numerous Buddha statues (hence some photos) but we reach the end very short of breath.  The photographs are here

Wonderful views over the countryside.  LP is not huge and we can see the surrounding wooded hillsides and the town below.  Eventually a stead descent sees us back on the main street and transported to our hotel – Le Palais Juilana which is about 3km from town.  Briefly use the swimming pool but we keep being reminded that it is winter locally, even though it feels warm to us!  Sunset around 5:30pm.

We are still in the travelling phase of this holiday so merely resort enough clothes  for now and then head back into town for dinner at the Tamarind.  They place a small brazier near our feet to keep them warm and the mozzies away and give us a huge menu.  Careful reading shows a set menu with a variety of local delicacies and so we chose that.  And it was all very good.  The price includes wine and was $30 for the two of us.  Outstanding value.

Tuc tuc here is a little powered metal cage – and by this time of day without our coats was pretty cold.  We head to bed as we have an early start tomorrow.

Vietnam (north) – another day

Day 3 Thursday 18 December 2014

Good and varied breakfast in the Movenpick, but avoiding the local delicacies on offer we stick to a continental breakfast as we have a busy day in Hanoi.    Our first planned stop is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but on seeing numerous school children in long lines our guide aborts this visit and we head off to the Temple of Literature.  Originally constructed as a school for Royal children, it was later extended to become the first University and major place of learning where in the fifteenth to seventeeth centuries the people who learnt here were very important with examination success being recorded on impressive stone tablets.  The teachings of Confucius (of whom there is a statue) and the three Kings responsible for extending education are honoured in the Temple.  Whilst some aspects of the teachings of Confucius might not match modern life they formed the bedrock of society here for a long time.  Despite the bustle outside it is a quiet and peaceful area.

Today’s photographs are at

We then return to the Mausoleum where we can see the body of Ho Chi Minh, although poorly – first tip here is that if you have reactolite glasses they look like sun glasses so the (armed) guards politely and silently request removal.  Not a problem unless like my wife and I you can see not a lot!  Surreptiously putting them back on and off and not missing a step (you need to keep in step you know) as you pass the great man is quite a struggle for both of us.

Back in the open air we rejoin our guide and enter the remaining complex where we are outside the French colonial head quarters built for the Governor of French Indo-China.  The whole of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand were controlled from here and indeed the country boundaries were redrawn by the French which has ed to many significant changes in the separate countries as becomes clear in Cambodia later in our journey.

We hear more detail of the French colonial period which was effectively ended by Ho Chi Minh.  The French were in control from the middle of the nineteenth century until the Japanese took control.  At the end of the war in 1945 Vietnam declared independence but the French returned seeking to take back control.  They built  a massive garrison at Dien Bien Phu in a deep wooded valley from which to control the Vietnamese.  However the guerilla tactics adopted by the Vietnamese – building narrow paths to the top of the surrounding hills under cover of mists prevented French aerial visibility and the narrow valley enabled supply lines to be cut easily.  Eventually the French suffered a massive defeat and as a result of a peace treaty Vietnam was divided into North, controlled by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam which was still linked with the French.

At one point Ho Chi Minh sought assistance from the USA but in that period it was isolationist and would not assist, so not surprisingly help was sought from the Russians.  It makes you wonder how different history would have been in this part of the world if the USA had helped?

Ho Chi Minh would not take up residence in the fine ex-French colonial headquarters preferring a much simpler house nearby which we can see from the outside.  This was temporary but the replacement house on stilts, which of course is common in Vietnam, was no more luxurious.  A man of and with the people who did believe “that we are all in this together” had very modest accommodation.  Adjacent was the effective “cabinet room” alongside a massive bunker which could be used when bombs were being dropped by the Americans from South Vietnamese airbases as the “war against communism” developed in the late sixties and early seventies.

This is however all in a beautiful parkland setting (or at least it is now) with a lake, trees and now well maintained grass.

In 1989 we may recall the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What I did not know was that in the same year (when we married – so I do have a wife on these travels) was that Communism was being reformed in Vietnam and Laos.  The new communism may not entirely match our political choice, but individuals have far more freedom and can travel abroad freely.  They buy and build businesses and land and we are struck everywhere in Vietnam (and later Laos) that there seem to be plentiful supplies of food and clothing.  Hanoi may be much different to the countryside, and I will write about Laos later, but certainly in the capital there seemed to be no shortages on anything.  And my wife (well she deserves a comment) notes how clean it is all seems compared to our trip last year to India.  Here streets are tidy and clean and unemployment is very low, with people no doubt employed to maintain this state of affairs.

Leaving this central area we go the Museum of Ethnology where the 54 different ethnic groupings within Vietnam are represented.  They have many different languages and backgrounds as they reflect moving populations, invasions and economic and social changes and the museum seeks to reflect this.

However in the grounds of the Museum is a small restaurant which works in the same way as “Jamie’s Fifteen”.  It takes youngsters and trains them in cooking, waiting and management skills and we have a very tasty lunch – more Hanoi soup first.

There are settings conveying the different living and working practices of the different ethnic groups.  Outside the main museum there are samples of various buildings from around Vietnam showing different types of construction – one of wood, one of bamboo, one with a thaatched type roof, some on the ground and others on stilts from those living on or close flood plains (perhaps we should adopt this in the UK!).  We did not take photos in this area but I can refer you to .  Strongly recommended for a visit.

We return to the City Centre for a light hearted trip (after the sight seeing) in a tuc tuc – man powered, not motorised – around the Old Quarter which is essentially a huge market.  The streets are teeming with food suppliers, clothing, shoes, jewellery, cafes etc.  Equally interesting was the street traffic.  Mopeds loaded up with boxes, goods for delivery or families (4 on a single moped was the largest number I saw.  Managed a photo of three.  Walking around there are still many ladies delivering in traditional style with a pole and baskets on each end and a pointed straw hat, although the numbers are declining as the population modernises.

Finally time for dinner and a huge step change tonight.  “San Ho” is an expensive fish restaurant which is almost opposite our hotel.  So no major exercise.  Food very good, but expensive by comparison with anything else and yet nothing to make us go “wow”.  Our choice but might have done better to go back to the same place as the night before!

Vietnam (north)

Day 2 Wednesday 17 December 2014

We are awoken (well we were not asleep) in what are theoretically the early hours but it is only 21:00 back in the UK.  Vietnam has a 7 hour time difference and following a not bad breakfast we are on descent into Hanoi.

First annoying experience, despite the cases being given priority stickers at Gatwick we endure a longish wait before they emerge.  Meanwhile we are entertained by four boxes apparently containing Johnnie Walker whisky going around and around on the carousel!

Exit with nothing to declare we are met by a young guide and meeting the two other ladies on this tour (whose bags had been first to emerge so had also had a long wait), we head to the hotel and get our first taste of the Hanoi rush hour.  Public transport seems a little lacking – as far as I can see they have built a new airport terminal to cope with growing traffic but there is no rail connection to the airport!  There is heavy use of mopeds / motorbikes with this being a very heavily used mode of transport.

Our first stop is a coffee and the Museum of History which enables our guide to give a run down of Vietnamese history over the last 2000 years.  Controlled by China until approx 1000AD, Hanoi was formed and became the capital of an independent country in 1004 AD.  Much of the next 400 years or so was to be subject to continued invasions from China until the Vietnamese under resourceful leaders seduced the Chinese navy into the mouth of the river where stakes had been buried which, as the tide dropped, trapped the invaders and enabled the Vietnamese troops to inflict a heavy defeat.  The tactic was so good that it was used a second time, the Chinese having apparently forgotten the history in the meantime.

This period ended when the French came and Hanoi became the headquarters for French Indo-China in the nineteenth century.  That initially ended with the Japanese invasion and so in 1945 with the Japanese withdrawal Vietnam became independent and certainly our guide considered this an important date.  Led by Ho Chi Minh the French returned with the intention of recovering Indo-China and the Vietnamese guerillas were born.

The French built a huge garrison at Dien Bien Phu in the north of the country in a deeply wooded valley.  As we acknowledged the mists hang around in the morning in winter and under this cover from aircraft the Vietnamese were able to construct narrow paths through the woods to the top of the surrounding hillsides and were able cut the land supply lines to the garrison and also to rain down firepower from the hillsides inflicting a heavy defeat.  The French surrendered the North and the country became divided into two – North and South Vietnam.
This album records our two days in Hanoi and are now in the order they were taken I think, so should match this blog a little more closely.

Hanoi has recently celebrated 1000 years of existence and has created a giant mural covering some 4 km along the major city road, parts of which we saw and appear in the photos.  We then drove around part of the city seeing the Lake of Restored sword and the temple at Quan Thanh temple which was at the north gate of the original city.

Following on from sleep in the afternoon we wandered around the corner from the Movenpick hotel with the intention of sampling some Vietnamese food.  Quan Ngon restaurant is an obviously popular place; after a false start a waitress with some English (and English is a much taught language in Vietnam we found) helped us through the menu and we ordered far too much.  Hanoi soup to start is an absolute must.  Either beef or chicken noodle – but good and refreshing.  The highlight was a shrimp speciality in a pancake.  But then we were also given rice paper and a variety of herbs and so with the shrimp pancake, herbs and lettuce and then roll up within the rice paper so that it is a little like we would eat crispy duck and pancake in the UK but also resembling a rice paper pring roll.  Crowned the best course however was a beef dish on various greens which was very tasty.  Plus some rice and other bits and pieces.

Time for bed.


Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

Day 1 Tuesday 16 December 2014

She is Jackie and I am Richard. The names may well be changed to protect the innocent. This is the first of our holidays planned post retirement, if you exclude the trip to North Wales back in the summer when a long weekend became a week and a bit visiting the railways there.

This trip commenced not with with usual car journey to an airport but instead, courtesy of some very well priced tickets from FGW (not anyone’s favourite operator) to Gatwick airport. We progressed from rail to the shuttle and North Terminal and booked in. Now for the best part of three weeks we are in the hands of Voyages Jules Verne (hereinafter VJV) visiting Vietnam (north), Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (south).

The day then passes in the usual blur of security, the interminable trek over the bridge to the satellite terminal, joining the Vietnam Air Boeing 777-200 ER plane and heading off across Europe, whilst trying to get some sleep.  This time as it is long haul (10 hours 45 minutes) we have taken premium economy and unusually Jackie manages more sleep than I do – which given she says she cannot sleep on a plane is almost amazing.

To me the area we are visiting is defined in two ways with recent history in the area having largely passed me by.  There are the horrific news images from the Vietnam war in the late sixties and early seventies and the later filmic recreations – “The Deer Hunter”, “Apocalypse Now” and of course “Good Morning Vietnam” and alongside this the genocide recorded in “The Killing Fields”.  Shortly before our departure Sue Perkins was in full travelogue mode covering the Mekong river over a four episode period which gave a much modern view of the area (and is no doubt available even now on DVD from your favourite supplier).  What will we find as we tour?