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Kungfu Chengdu

Trip to ChengDu and JiuZhaiGou

Here’s a snaphot of my recent trip to Chengdu, China

JiuZhaiGou (九寨沟)

This is supposed to be the highlight of the tour. The journey by bus took approximately 6 hours but due to various stopovers along Maoxian and SongPan, it took us almost a full day to reach our hotel. Along the way, we passed by some scenic mountainous views. We also passed by WenChuan county, scene of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Reconstruction efforts was fast and today, you can almost spot no signs of the destruction.

Before embarking on this tour, I have seen some pictures from my friend’s previous trip to JiuZhaiGou. They were certainly nice but not spectacular enough to really set me drooling. The best time to visit, according to the tour guide, would be in the region of September to October whereby all the flowers would be in full bloom, cool weather and we would be able to see some spectacular scenery. However, this would also be the time where the park is the most crowded – so you might end up seeing more humans than flowers.

JiuZhaigou reminds me of a big nature walk, the centre of attention being its crystal clear lakes. Along the way, one would spot some of the clearest waters ever seen. As the saying goes “九寨归来不看水“。This I totally agree. The high concentration of calcium carbonate in the water makes the water so clear that the bottom is often visible even at high depths. And I have to especially mention Arrow Bamboo Lake (箭竹海). I was totally awestruck by how clear the water was that it basically served as a mirror, reflecting in perfect symmetry of a mirror image of the nearby hillside in the water. This is a heaven for photo taking enthusiasts. Till today I have not seen such a clear reflection of image in the water.
Another area worth mentioning is Wu Hua Hai (五花海). This is a lake whereby one is supposed to see the different shades of water colour in the lake. Unfortunately as this was the off season, I only managed to spot 2 shades of colour. This was also one of the bigger areas of the park where a lot of people stopped by to relax and snap photos.

There were 2 waterfalls in the park, namely NuoRiLang waterfall and ZhenZhu waterfall. They were certainly nice and relaxing to see water tumbling down but do not expect the spectacular standards of the Niagara Falls (maybe my expectations too high). Oh the locals kept emphasizing that NuoRiLang waterfall was the location whereby the famed drama series Journey to the West was shot back in the mid-80s.
As we moved along the park, one just has the feeling that the rest of the park seems to mirror what we have seen earlier – great lakes, clear water, the occasional waterfall. We ended our trip at around 5pm and bade goodbye to JiuZhaiGou.

My feel of JiuZhaigou? Worth a go but I don’t think I would make a return trip due to the long travel distance from Chengdu and there is nothing really superbly exceptional that would entice me to want to make this extra effort to return. In a nutshell, it feels like a over-hyped big nature walk. To really enjoy JiuZhaigou do spend at least 2 days there, take your time to walk through and enjoy nature’s beauty. But then again after a while, you will realize everything seems to be the same…

Huang Long (黄龙)Park

Before going to Huang Long, our tour group was offered another alternate location to visit MuNiGou. The tour guide, I had a feeling, was trying his best to dissuade us from going to Huang Long as he claimed due to off season, there was nothing to see. Having already visited JiuZhaiGou, some of us decided we have enough of “gous” for this trip and stuck to the original itinerary. The rest had no strong objections and off we go!

In a way, the guide is not wrong. As this is the off season, there is not enough rainfall to fill up the natural mineral pools and lakes – the highlight of a visit to Huang Long. Thus basically we would only see dry rock and no water. But still the journey was not a waste of time. En route to Huang Long, we caught some of the most spectacular mountain scenery one can ever see. I was glued to the spectacular snow capped mountain and the winding journey, capturing some breathtaking photos along the way. I almost wish we could have just stopped and stand there to admire the scenery. One certainly has to be impressed with the Chinese (or human engineering technology), with the way they carve out the road on a widely steep mountainous region and there are is an even an ongoing project to tunnel through the mountains. Only a skilled driver familiar with mountain driving can have the guts and skill to keep the bus from falling off the cliff and although the road was in good working condition, still any miscalculation would end our journey prematurely. For that one has to admire and be grateful to the skills of our driver for making our journey safe. But I have a feeling the roads will be closed during winter time due to safety concerns ie slippery roads and falling snow.

After maneuvering and winding through the spectacular mountainous roads, we finally reached our destination. The tour guide then brought us partially up the park, introducing the park to us and trying to hint, “See? I told you so”. Huang Long is basically an upward incline journey of about 4km to the top, with a temple and a lake awaiting the conquerors at the top of the park. Since there was really nothing much to see, with only a few pools half-filled with water, (this I have to agree with the tour guide), most of the tour group decided to drop out barely a quarter of the journey leaving the last 3 of us to complete a race to the top within the stipulated timing of 3 hours. We were warned not to overexert ourselves, since after all we are 3,000 meters above sea level and to turn back if we feel tired or if time runs out. Perhaps with a point to prove, we raced to the summit in 1 hour 40 minutes, spent about 20 minutes hurriedly at the top, snapped a few photos along the way, and took another 1 hour to decent. The journey was actually not that tiring as compared to other walking trails I have taken before in other countries, with the biggest obstacles still being the low oxygen level at high altitude level so more than once, we took our time to catch our breath and rest and photo taking. Along the journey, there were more than once whereby I thought of turning back (due to lack of time more than anything else) but my companions timed the journey and estimated we had more than enough time to make it since they expect descent to be much faster than ascent. So basically, this turned out to be a physical activity rather than a sightseeing tour! But had the pools and lakes been filled with water, we might have spent more time taking photos and thus had no time to reach the summit. This would be one of the regrets of this trip ie unable to view the supposedly beauty of Huang Long


The next stop of our journey was Leshan, a 2 hour journey from Chengdu, to see the famed Grand Buddha (乐山大佛). This was a giant project commissioned by a monk named HaiTong with the intention of serving as a guardian angel for shipping vessels and villages located along the river bank. Leshan itself is a modern city well worth exploring; the trip itself was a huge personal disappointment for me as it was unfortunate that out tour group did not spend more time in the city as we would have liked. Sigh. One of the disadvantages of joining a guided tour.

The boat trip itself to view the Buddha was also disappointing to say the least. We were only given a limited time at the front of the Buddha to snap some photos. To catch the x spot, one has to pay an exorbitant ‘entrance fee’ to grab the ideal spot for photo taking. Due to commercialization (so typical of China), the boat left for pier only after 10 minutes thus we only managed to see the Buddha statue for only a short while. Another regret was that we did not have a chance to be up close and personal with the statue by scaling it. Basically, this was a hit, see and run boat ride. But still the statue itself was magnificent and one wonders the amount of effort spent to construct it during ancient time. To really enjoy it, one can take the boat ride (more for photo taking purpose though) followed by a bus ride to the actual location which will allow spend more time at the base. However, one will not be able to take a full picture of the Buddha at such close range so for photo enthusiasts a boat trip is necessary. Of course spend one day in Leshan to explore the city.

Er Mei

After leaving Leshan, we headed to nearby Er Mei in preparation of our ascent to mount Er Mei. Mount Er Mei was reputed to be a cloudy place with sunlight rarely present for most parts of the year. We were told if we could catch sunlight, we would certainly have been blessed.

Like most mountain ascent, the journey to the top was long and arduous. Firstly, it took a 2-hour bus ride past a wet and hazy environment just to reach base camp. This was followed by a 20 minute hike to the cable car station. After a short cable car ride, we had to walk another 10 minutes to reach the peak. The road itself was well built to cater to mass tourism and most people would have no problems waling to the top. For those who really cannot walk, there is an option of being carried to the top by 2 burley man via a carriage. Of course, one has to pay for it.

Due to the cloudy conditions, visibility was poor throughout. For those wishing to capture some nice photos, they would be deeply disappointed. On the top of the mountain (dubbed the “Golden Summit”), there was a statue of Buddha as well as the temples for devotees to pray. Despite the weather, there was still a strong crowd. After this came another arduous 3 hour descent to the base of the mountain.

Chengdu itself is a modern and vibrant city. We visited a few old towns filled with ancient Chinese-style architecture, namely HuangLongXi, KuanZhai and JinLi. These are places where locals and tourists mingle with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies. The one that really left me with a deep impression was JinLi. This was where I spotted handicraft work I would have never seen back home – candy drawing, paper cutting, portrait drawing, egg sculpture and even an artist doing head sculptures using clay! This was something interesting and crowds gathered around the various stalls to see the artists at work.

And no trip to Chengdu can be completed without a trip to see the famed pandas! The day to visit the pandas itself was a rainy day but still it did not dampen the spirits of everybody who wanted to catch a glimpse of these cuddly black and white creatures. They were certainly auntie killers – every auntie who saw the pandas blushed and gleamed with delight. We were lucky in the sense that we managed to catch the pandas when they were most active aka busy eating. We were told that after meals they tend to slack off for a nap and all attempts to wake them up after this would be futile. We certainly did not wish to see sleeping pandas!

Group-Organized Shopping

I usually don’t talk about shopping but this is one unique case that has to be logged into this blog. In any guided tour it is very common to include trips that you bring you to places to shop for items that you do not want that are exorbitantly priced. This trip is no exception. Amongst various items, we were brought to shops that sold tea, honey, pearls, medicine, jade etc. The one that I wanted to mention occurred during a trip to a silk shop. Like any other organized shopping trip, we were eager to get out even before we entered the shop as we simply had no interest to but the products. But when the sales person made her sales pitch, her accent immediately told us that she was not a local born Chinese, rather someone from our neighboring Malaysia. Once she spoke, we immediately felt she was someone close to home and an ally to customers that we could trust. We later learnt that she was an exchange student from Batu Pahat sent to China on a 3 month attachment. She was unhappy with the arrangement, was paid a meager allowance and suffered diarrhea on arrival. And she had no commission from sales, so she had no incentive to pitch sales and tell tall tales. So she basically turned into a wrecking crew, while not deny the merits of the silk product, she also tried to dissuade us from buying something we have no use back home, especially considering our tropical climate. To disguise her intentions, all of us spoke hokkien, a dialect that local Chinese and certainly others staff members as well as the tour guide could not understand. This was the first time I have encountered a sales person who tried to dissuade us from buying! And I have also never paid so much attention to a sales pitch! But still some of our tour members decided to buy the silk so she also did her best to get lots of discount as well as throw in as much freebies as she could. She even went to the extent of trying to transfer the tour guide’s share of commission to us. But I do agree with what she said, if the item is too expensive and you don’t really need it, then do not buy it. After all, we are here for the sights and tour, not for shopping

I left the shop feeling bemused.

Last day Free & Easy

After enduring a boring & enforced shopping trip, we were finally given freedom to run wild. Being a free and easy advocate, I was finally glad that we could be released from the restrains of the organized tour and to do whatever we wanted. As our flight was in the night, we were given a whole lot of 7 hours of free time. We were dropped off at Chun Xi Street, the shopping belt of Chengdu. Not wishing to die of boredom from 7 hours of mindless window shopping, my hiking buddies and I planned our own mini- tour of Chengdu that the tour itinerary did not cover. Surprisingly everybody in the tour group decided to tag along (there were 3 young ladies who had the shopping face look) and thus armed with my basic research, I became the unofficial tour guide for a wild trip round Chengdu.

The first aim was to try their metro. This was a 2-line railway system (easy to navigate, even if you don’t understand Chinese) and we ended up at HeHuaChi. This was one of the places I would usually go in any overseas trip – a bargain hunting centre to grab cheap stuff as well as last minute items to bring home. This area certainly sold a lot of items from cheap clothes to books, shoes, bags, food, almost everything you can think of. Some of us managed to find some cheap stuff and enjoyed some bargain hunting.

Next stop was People’s Park. This was where a lot of locals mingle to spend an eventful weekend. The park very vibrant and was filled with lots of activities. Along the way we saw street singing performances (I counted at least 4 different rival stage performers), line dancing, calligraphy on the ground (would have been arrested for vandalism back home!), leisure card playing, book reading by the park etc. There was even a spot where worried parents congregate to exchange bio data of the unmarried children with each other, hoping to find the perfect mate for their children (yes this is not a myth)! Besides this there was a bonsai garden (mind you these are giant bonsai) as were as an amusement park catered to the needs for the young ones. I was certainly very impressed. Firstly no tour agency would bring you to such locations so I was blessed I could come here before I flew back. Secondly, I don’t think I can find such a vibrant park back home.

Next was TianFu Park. Unfortunately it was condoned off so we only spent a while there taking photos of the statue of Chairman Mao waving at the crowd. Nobody wanted to stay (TianFu was also shopping area) so we sped back to ChunXi street after that.

With about 1 and half hour to go before we were to board the bus to airport, all of us then went our separate ways on reaching Chunxi and coincidentally ended up at KFC for a quick dinner whereby I clocked my Zinger burger in a foreign city. With barely an hour left, I took a slow walk back and enjoyed the street scene but there was not mad dash for last minute shopping. I only dropped by the snack store aimed at spending the rest of my RMB but found the items on sale either too expensive or not suitable.

Then it was time to leave for home. Bye to Chengdu!

Essentials and useful information of China & Chengdu
1. Do bring an umbrella as Chengdu’s weather is unpredictable, especially in the mountainous areas.
2. Chinese language is still predominately used Chinese society. Although there are pinyin available on street signs, they basically do not tell you what they mean. For those who do not speak or read the Chinese language, one would struggle to travel round Chengdu and communicate with locals. A classic example would be food – all labeled in Chinese. So you will not know what you are eating at all if you don’t understand the labels! Another classic example is that all TV programs are in Chinese language – you will be very lucky to find HBO in hotels. I am not sure of the level of English proficiency in Chengdu but I believe most still do not speak English. Even if they do, I do not think I would want to use English too! It is no wonder I hardly see a Caucasian on the streets. The situation is much worse in countryside.
3. It is a always big debate as to the merits of going it alone verse an organized tour. For Chengdu, Ermei and Leshan itself, one should not face problems with a free an easy tour so long as sufficient homework done. But as for further outreach into the countryside, to save time and trouble, an organized trip will be better. Another advantage is that organized trip brings economies of scale and would bring costs down. To go it alone would definitely be more expensive (imagine the cost of hiring a transport for a 6 hour car ride to JiuZhaiGou). Not only that, the timing has to be immaculate otherwise one would end up missing the bus and left stranded and frustrated in trying to get out of the countryside where transport may be few and far in between.
4. China’s stuff is notoriously very expensive. It is only considering exchange rates that the wallet does not hurt. So control your spending and do not be swayed by emotions; otherwise no matter how much money you bring will also never be enough

Posted by acerchuan 08:23 Archived in China Comments (0)

Angkor and Khmer

Trip to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

sunny 22 °C

Cambodia. Mention of this country reminds one of a country ravaged by war and the dark days of Pol Pot’s reign. Today, however, it is a country on the road to recovery and very much into tourism. There are two areas to cover in Cambodia which are so vastly different from one another – the magnificent ancient structures of Angkor located in Siem Reap (as depicted by the Cambodian national flag) and the horrible atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 where an estimated one quarter of the population were exterminated through torture, mass execution, disease and starvation. It is hoped that valuable lessons can be learnt from such acts and never be repeated again.

This was my second trip to Cambodia, having previously been there in March 2011. During my previous trip, I had spent 5 days in Siem Reap, the highlight being a 3-day excursion through the Angkor Archaeological Park but I did not get a chance to drop by Phnom Penh. Thus this time a visit to Phnom Penh was definitely on the cards.

Thus I felt a return to familiar territory in making this second trip to visit the magnificent Angkor structures once again. I has actually liked Siem Reap, as it was not as crowded like other major neighbouring cities like Bangkok and Hanoi. Traffic here was also not as chaotic as other neighbouring regions. And surprise, surprise, there were more Caucasians than Asian tourists! From observations, Siem Reap is a relatively undiscovered gem so it is a good time to go now before more people uncover this gem!

The first day was meant to be a relaxed day, with me reaching Siem Reap in the afternoon and spending the rest of the day roaming round town. And of course, my number one mission: to search for pate (French loaf sandwich with meat) . During my previous trip I was addicted to it and this time round I totally skipped dinner on the first night and has 2 loafs at one go!

The key attraction of any Siem Reap trip is always to visit the Angkor structures particularly the world renowned Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This time round I had only allocated a 1-day trip, so the logical choice was to visit the Big Circle, which would cover the main sights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Despite my second visit, I was still awed by its magnificent structure, particularly from the outside of the temple. I spent a few hours just in Angkor Wat itself, wandering around the structure, admiring at the way the structure was created and the delicate carvings on the walls. Efforts are still continuing to restore the ruins after years of neglect and decay. Thus when visiting the site, it is not surprising to see parts of it in ruins while other areas might be cordon off for restoration works. I did not hire a guide however, who would definitely be able to explain in more precise details the history and particularly the depiction behind different structural carvings. A hired guide is highly recommended if one wants to delve more into the history of the sites while exploring the temples at same time. Otherwise, if you are just a visitor like me, just relax, enjoy the magificent sights and shoot some nice photos to bring home. Since this is also not a blog on Angkor wat, I will not cover the history of the structure and the different carvings I've seen. Also with the internet it is now very easy for people who are interested to understand more to do their own reading and research. Next was to Angkor Thom where I also saw similar looking structures.

To visit the full Angkor structures will take at least 2 full days as there are lots of other smaller structures scattered around the area worth visiting like Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm etc just to name a few. But after a while you tend to realize that the structures in various locations look more or less similar. So if one only has a day to spare, just stick to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and drop by a few smaller sites if time permits. But the sad thing is that most of the structures were in ruins although efforts are made to restore them through various partnerships with overseas organizations and governments. So some inconveinence may be expected.

After a hard day’s walking and trekking, it was back to Siem Reap town for a nice simple dinner, inclusive another round of pate, and a relaxing massage to ease the aches and pains from all the walking. After that I returned to the hotel for a quick change up. Unfortunately the sky then began to open up and I was stuck in the hotel and unable to roam the night market.

The rain continued to be relentless the next day, despite that, I went for a quick hike round the city before braving the rain in the tuk tuk to the airport to catch a plane to the next destination – Phnom Penh.

The highlight of Phnom Penh was to visit Tho Slang Museum (S21) & the Killing Fields of Chong Ek to understand more the horrific history of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Upon bidding farewell to rainy Siem Reap, I reached sunny Phnom Penh and checked into the hotel. The first day was meant to be relaxed so I spent the day visiting the National Museum of Cambodia, which was located near the hotel and then onto the nearby Sisowath Quey, also known as the Riverside. Surprisingly, Cambodia is more open to foreign investment than neighbouring Vietnam and I saw a lot of familiar restaurants and of course there were also many pubs and bars frequented by foreigners. I thoroughly enjoy my slow walk down the river, taking in the street scene and observing locals enjoying and relaxing by the riverside. There was one group playing chaptek and yet another ground of mostly middle aged women doing mass exercise to the sound of music. I also took a slow river cruise but unfortunately, as it was a night cruise, I did not get to see a lot of the activities by the riverside.

During the next day, I managed to find a tuk tuk driver willing to take me on a round trip through Phnom Penh for around USD $20 for a full day. I packed my day tour into 4 destinations –Wat Phnom, Tho Slang Museum, Killing Fields and the Russian Market.

The first stop was Wat Phnom. It is a temple located in the heart of the city and a place for locals to gather and relax. The image that still rings fresh in my mind are the cobra structures located at the entrance of the temple.

The next stop was one of the place I had penciled in and maked out in my itinerary – Tuol Slang Genocide Museum aka S21 Prison. This was a school compound that was converted in to a prison cum torture chamber during the dark years under Khmer Rough control. Anybody and everybody, from the old to the young, to doctors, academic, monks and peasants, men and women would be sent here for interrogation and torture. Upon entering the compound, I saw a grave site commemorating the last 14 victims of this notorious facility. This was only the start of more horror to come. The compound was divided into 4 buildings and along the way, I saw the torture instruments, prison cell blocks, photos after photos of victims and of course bones and skulls. I also took time to watch part of a documentary of the Khmer genocide. The artifacts on display were already considered very mild when compared to what actually happened here and the compound itself is now a quiet and peaceful place, as if to let the souls who perished here rest in peace. Once cannot imagine such a serene location once brought horrors to ordinary Cambodians. And the ironic thing is S21 prison is located in a school compound in a busy intersection; one really cannot imagine this used to be a house of horror and torture.

To sum it off, this was the 10 rules detainees had to follow as inscribed below, plastered at the side of the museum. I left the museum with a heavy heart.

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Next was to lunch and a trip to Russian Market. Known as Psar Toul Tom Poung to the locals, this was where the bargain hunting starts. The place itself was packed full of people and some of the walkways were very cramped. But whatever one is looking for, one can get it here, from replica watches to t-shirts, foodstuff, lunch, handicraft etc. Basically this place sells anything and everything and is the best place in town for souvenir hunting. You can even have a haircut and do a pedicure! But the place was rather cramped and I just had this eerie feeling that if a fire ever broke out… (Touch wood!).

After the Russian Market, it was the last stop of the day – a 1 hour ride to the outskirts of Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields of Chong Ek. The killing fields were a grim reminder of the brutalities of the genocide during Khmer Rouge regime. The ride on the tuk-tuk itself was uncomfortable as the roads were bumpy. I was just glad it didn’t rain and that smoke emitted from heavy vehicles didn’t choke my lungs. But this uncomfortable ride was nothing compared to the last journey that many ordinary Cambodians made to the execution ground. Just like Tho Slang, I felt a serene sense of peace and quiet upon arrival – one could not imagine this was the site of the last stop for many innocent Cambodians massacred during the dark days. To help visitors understand more of this terrible history, all visitors were loaned an audio player upon entry to the Killing Fields in which a narrator would describe the events as well as told stories that took place at various spots as visitors moved slowly from point to point. I felt that this was a systematic and organized way of helping visitors who had no prior knowledge of or had wanted to understand more of the atrocities committed by human beings on fellow human beings. For this, I was very grateful for a clearer insight via the audio player which made the field trip very meaningful. And to reach wider audience, several languages were available so do not worry if one does not understand English. Along the walking trail, just to quote a few, there was a truck stop whereby the victims would alight at their final destination, a spot marked the executioner’s office, the storage room for killing tools, mass graves etc. This was a sombre place to visit and I have to emphasise that at all times that upmost respect must be given to the deceased.

I understand that only a portion of the site is open to visitors as the area of execution was simply too far and too wide for visitors to cover fully. Also fears of unexploded landmines limited the areas that one could walk. Along the way, I could still spot bone and teeth fragments located on the ground as well as remains of clothing pieces. A chilly reminder of what actually happened here.

The main attraction was a 17 storey glass stupa which contained skulls and bones of victims exhumed from mass graves. All visitors were encouraged to pay their respects to the victims by bowing 3 times. Visitors were allowed to enter the stupa to view the bones and pay their respects.

A visit to Phnom Penh, especially if one wish to visit S21 prison and the Killing Fields should always be a somber occasion and one must pay upmost respect to the victims of this unimaginable mass murder. One is advised to avoid these places if one cannot stomach such cruel brutalities. I had already been mentally preparing myself to see these horrors before embaking on this trip but still I left the compound with a heavy heart. Outside the compound, I also caught sight of a group of handicapped people enjoying a game of sitting volleyball. Another grim reminder of the damage unexploded landmines can cause.

On the last day of the tour, I had the morning to spare before the flight home so I dropped by the Royal Palace. The Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located inside the Palace, was certainly worth seeing. The last mission of the day was a late dash for some souvenirs and of course another round of pate!

To sum it up, Cambodia is certainly a place worth visiting. Angkor Wat itself is a place to marvel. And a trip to the Killing Fields reminds one of the kind of devastation that humans can do and that we should appreciate the years of peace and tranquillity we enjoy back home. And of course, I can never forget my favourite pate!

Some information to share:
1. Official currency is Riel although USD is widely accepted everywhere. So it is ok to pay in USD. Just expect small change to be given in Riel. Estimated USD$1 is about 4,000 riel.
2. There are regular buses from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh which can be easily be purchased from any bus company in Siem Reap. Just be ready to endure a 6 hour journey. To save hotel money, one can consider an overnight bus ride while sleeping in the bus. Buses are also available from Phnom Penh to nearby Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, if one is considering a cross country visit.
3. Tuk tuk is widely available and is considered a safe mode of transport. In fact you will be bombarded with requests from tuk tuk drivers! Just remember to agree on the price before boarding to avoid complications. Do provide a tip to show your appreciation if their service is good, especially those on full day trips.
4. There are no mega malls in sight but pubs and restaurants are widely available, especially along the Riverside. So it is a good place to get merry and drunk. It will also be good to stay around that area.
5. Do try pate! I still love it. It costs between Rh 4,000 to Rh 6,000.


Posted by acerchuan 08:28 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Halong curise

Trip to Hanoi and Halong bay


Ever since I saw a video of Halong Bay and its beautiful scenery and all the more being an UNESCO World Heritage side, it has always been on my wish list to visit Halong Bay. The trip certainly did not disappoint and I had a good time there.
However, the trip almost did not materialise as I was slow in planning. Initially I had wanted to travel to Halong Bay via China (killing 2 birds with one stone). However, as luck would have it, the tour tickets were sold out and I was unable to make it on the remaining available dates. Time for Plan B. I decided to skip China altogether and make my own way to Vietnam via a shortened free and easy trip.

Luckily my friend was able to make it thus I had a companion. Upon research from the Internet, I found that there are actually planned tours from Hanoi to Halong, hence one need not have to make his own way to Halong from Hanoi. The cruises also vary - from a single day cruise (not recommended since it is a jam packed schedule with little time to relax) to a 2-day 1-night tour (overnight on board) to even a 3-day 2 night tour on different shapes and sizes of ships. Cruise prices also vary, ranging from the cheap of USD $100 to as much as USD $200 or even $300 per pax, depending on the class of ship and itinerary on offer. I finally chose an overnight curise with a few stopovers which suited my taste. Halong here we come!

We landed in Hanoi on Thu 21/March/2013. I had previously been to Ho Chi Minh back in 2007 but not to Hanoi. However, both cities gave me the same impression - as chaotic as can be! There were certainly lots of bikes and it seems like everybody - from the old to the young, uses one. The motorcycle remains the primary mode of transport for most Vietnamese. In fact bike riding can turn out to be a interesting acrobatics show – I have seen a lady pillion rider sitting on one side of the bike, cross legged, without any support while making a phone call! This is also the only place where I can see 4 people squeezing onto a bike. This was certainly interesting but this cannot be the case when one is trying to navigate through the streets. In effect, crossing the roads is an art form in itself. We had a hard time moving around in Hanoi, having to pay extra attention to surrounding chaotic traffic and similar looking buildings throughout the streets. The constant blaring of horns certainly did not help matters. Many a time we lost track of which part of the French Old Quarter we were at and had to go back to the street map to keep ourselves on track.

As a shopping paradise, Hanoi will be last on my list (there are certainly other better places to shop for cheap stuff around the region). For one, Hanoi is not fully opened up for foreign businesses yet. It is one of few Asian cities where I finally cannot find both McDonalds and Starbucks! The stuff on sale does not really suit us tourists. There are also no bazaar and mega malls to walk around. So we spend our first day walking aimlessly around the Old Quarter, managed to get to Dong Xuan market (reminds me more of a wholesale market than one for tourists bargaining) Ngoc Son Temple en route to Hoan Kiem Lake and had some pho bho (noodle soup) for dinner.
The second day was finally the day of our highlight tour. After a hearty breakfast, we were packed into a mini bus. There were 11 of us split into 4 groups of nationalities - Singapore, Malaysia, Russia and Argentina. The bumpy road trip took about 3 hours and along the way we caught a glimpse of everyday Vietnamese life - from its farms (Vietnam is primary still an agriculture country) to its schools. We reached Halong around noon. Although we did not really had a chance to explore Halong city, I were certainly much impressed by its cleanliness and quiet nature - as least I feel that it is not as chaotic as Hanoi!

Onto the cruise. The junk we took was a smaller size one – 11 pax is about just nice. The cruise ride took us past some magnificent scenery. Words cannot describe how I feel. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words – one has to be there to see and feel it to understand how I feel. We are finally away from civilization, away from internet, away from hustle and bustle of city life. So just relax, forget about everything for the next day and just enjoy the scenery and the breeze. One the way we passed by several interesting landscapes like the Dinh Huong island, Duck Island, Dog Island, Sail island etc (frankly speaking I still do not know which is which!). Most of our journey was spent admiring at the magnificent view of Halong Bay while enjoying the breeze. That itself is very much worth the ticket price. The boat then made a few scheduled stops, namely at the pearl farm, Titop beach (highlight is a 15 minute trek to the top of the beach for a grand view of the area) and the Surprise Cave (visit of natural formations in the cave) on the second day. Due to time constrains, however, we did not get to do kayaking.

At night we had a nice dinner and prompted by one of our Russian travel mates, we began to engage in a singing session. The night ended with our Argentine friends performing a hot dance! It was really fascinating to see different cultures coming together in a small form of cultural exchange. The Bay was calm at night and one certainly did not feel that one was on board a ship. It was unfortunately cloudy so we skipped the sun rise portion.

All good things came to an end as we sadly bade farewell to Halong Bay and made our way back to chaotic Hanoi. It’s a pity we did not have a chance to explore Halong City – I think I would have loved it more than Hanoi.

At night, on returning to Hanoi, we were in luck to catch the weekend night market. There are a lot of items on sale including food. It is a shopper’s paradise for some bargain hunting. The market is usually jam packed and the good thing is vehicles are banned from the roads – although one or two still chose to defy the ban. The unfortunate thing is it only happens on weekends and opens for only 3-4 hours, closing at about 12 midnight.

On the last day of the tour we managed to squeeze in 2 museum visits. Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton”, a place where Vietnamese revolutionaries we locked up by the French as well as Americans POWs being locked up during the Vietnam War. There is a bit of propaganda in here so do go with an open mind. It is not as brutal as Tuol Slang museum in neighbouring Cambodia but it is still an interesting place. We next visited the Army museum, where the highlight was the display of military hardware, especially the tanks and the fighter planes captured during the war. Inside the museum, the Vietnamese proudly showcase their history of how they defeated both the French and the Americans as well as recent progress in Vietnamese social and economic development.

Finally time to leave. We met our Russian friends at the airport and bade farewell to them and our Vietnamese hosts. It was an interesting journey to another part of Asia, witnessing another aspect of day to day human life in another city.

My experience in Vietnam: Vietnamese are generally nice people. Most do not speak English well so communication could be a problem. Hardened by war, Vietnamese are usually tough people and hard negotiators. That is why for much of the trip, we have this feeling of being ripped off wherever we go. Traffic is chaotic and I think I would go crazy I had stayed longer. Preferred currency is still the Dong and not all shops accept USD especially non-tourists areas, unlike before. So do bring more Dong. If one needs help, do contact the hotel one is staying in for assistance. I’m sure they will be more than willing to help.

Unique situation: Crossing the road is an adventure. One has to be brave and bold. Initially one can just follow the locals to get a feel on how to do it. Forget about traffic lights, they either don’t exist or people don’t follow the signs. Once you are familiar, one can just literally close your eyes and walk – you will be surprised you can reach the other side of the road in one piece! Most motorcycles are slow riders and they will generally give way to pedestrians if they know your intentions – just don’t hesitate and cause confusion to the riders. It is difficult to guard 100% since traffic comes in all directions so it will be good if somebody can watch your back when crossing the road.

Beware: As there are lots of motorcycles, do be aware of snatch thieves, especially those people who like to carry sling bags. Although we feel safe in Vietnam it is always better to be safe than sorry. Also be aware of taxi cheats who take you for joy rides or whose metre jumps faster than your heartbeat. Should such incident occur, seek help from the police / hotel or just negotiate down the fee, pay off and walk away. After all you are in a foreign land and all they want is money so it is better to pay off and walk away rather than get into a fistfight and get hurt.
View of Halong (1)

View of Halong (1)

view of Halong (2)

view of Halong (2)

Top of Titop Beach

Top of Titop Beach

View of Halong(3)

View of Halong(3)

Posted by acerchuan 22:08 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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