Monthly Archives: October 2013

The working week

After 3 days in Kep, beaching, pooling and islanding, we moved on to Phnom Penh. The 3 hour bus journey took just under 6 hours, on some pretty awful roads – and seeing how roads are one of the few things the Cambodian government does for its people, the journey was a good indicator of their effectiveness.

Rabbit island

Phnom Penh has a fairly compact city centre, and from our guesthouse to the river is around 20 minutes walk. You can’t go more than 100 metres though without being offered a tuk tuk or moto – apparently one of the weirder western traits is that we like to walk places. The mix of French colonial style buildings and roads, crossed with the crazy pace and traffic of an Asian city give it a really interesting feel.

Central Market

Our home for the next 5 week (4 left now), is the Tattoo Guesthouse, a place for long term volunteers. It’s a bit rough and ready, and our room wasn’t the cleanest when we got here, but after. Laura baby wiped the walls and we unpacked it’s actually quite nice. The main problem is the lack of wifi in the rooms, meaning we have to go downstairs to use the internet – champagne problems…


On our first Monday, along with 7 other newbie volunteers, we were picked up by the guys from Star Kampuchea to find out about our volunteer placements. The orientation day was quite fun, a mix of Cambodian history lesson, Khmer speaking practice and role play games about the placements. We also went to the Russian Market and bought mobile phones, and it’s quite novel to be using one again after so long. This day also gave us a taste of the Cambodian working practice as well, with a 2 and a half hour lunch break in the middle of the day! On the Tuesday we had a city tour, as well as visiting the nearby Killing Fields at Choung Ek. Nowadays people know all about the Khmer Rouge and the awful things that happened in the 70s, but actually going there and reading about things was very intense and disturbing. We also visited a Buddhist pagoda, where Law and I were the only ones not to pay for a blessing and a bracelet. Karma could get us for that.

Killing Fields

Finally, the Wednesday was supposed to be the first day at work… Except for me, it wasn’t. It was a national holiday, so no school! No such luck for Law, so while I took it easy, she went to work at the NGO Farmers Livelihood Development. They offer training to people in rural communities and Law is working with their marketing person to develop a strategy, which she describes as weirdly similar to Cornwall College. She can write more about it next time, but some highlights include a couple of long meetings entirely in Khmer, and a weeklong trip to the countryside!

I started work on Thursday, and my school is called the Center for Children’s Happiness. It’s an orphanage attached to a primary school, so after a morning of teaching ABC and saying ’hello’ a lot, I got asked to work with an older group of boys who need extra English. So, from 7am to 11am I have 10 or 11 teenage lads to teach English and Maths too, before they start High School at 1pm (after another 2 hour lunch break). I’ve only done a few days, and it’s both exhausting and fun. The school is half an hour away so I get a tuk tuk at 6.30, and their English ability ranges from excellent to poor, so it’s hard finding things to keep everyone engaged. There isn’t a Khmer translator either but one of the boys is older, and his English is very good so he has essentially become my assistant. During the breaks, he asks hundreds of questions about me, England and anything else, and writes down everything I say for extra practice.

My classroom

After an afternoon of working with the younger ones, I get home at just after 5pm, which is just about the longest day of the volunteers here. Law is starting at 7.30, whilst a lot of the others tend to work from 8 or 9, have a long lunch break and then finish by 4. I did sign up for teaching English, but I’m secretly jealous of the volunteers in the other orphanages whose days consist of play, nap, four hour lunch, play and then home!

The school run

Laura is currently on her trip in the countryside, and doesn’t get back until Friday. It is bizarre not being together after not doing anything separately for months, and while her phone signal isn’t great (she has to climb a hill in the middle of nowhere), she is having a good time, and Mondulkiri is one of the more beautiful but less visited provinces. I know he’s on standby, but Mr. Bower doesn’t need to do a ’Taken’ rescue mission yet. It’s another day off for me today (lots of holidays here), so I’m heading out shortly with some of the other volunteers, whose youth only annoys me intermittently!

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Vietnam to Cambodia – the comedy border crossing

After the Mekong home stay, we decided on going with a little (comparable) luxury in our next place. The lizards / bugs / mice ratio had affected our sleep a bit!

Hopping back on the bikes for the second time, we got to Can Tho bus station, and following the advice of Mr. Hung we bought tickets to Rach Gia on the ’nice bus’, which was a fine 3 hour journey, with the plan to buy tickets from there to Ha Tien. I think we were probably a bit screwed over, but we did managed to get seats on the local bus, which was a bit of an experience. I don’t think capacity was a factor in the driver’s thinking, who just bounced along with his hand on the horn, picking up in random places and filling up completely. At one point, a woman got on with a mattress, and at another they strapped a motorbike to the back. Anyway, we made it to Ha Tien, and with no maps had to go on some more motos to our hotel (we’re getting good at holding on now).


Ha Tien is a sleepy little place, with which is usually skipped over by tourists. It was nice to walk around for a couple of days, and we achieved the main aim of having good showers and getting washing done. There is one English bar, the Oasis, where we did enjoy a cooked breakfast and PG tips! The town was a nice final stop in Vietnam, and with the nearest town in Cambodia (Kep) being so close, everything seemed like it would be nice and easy…

Instead of booking some moto drivers to the border, we decided the official looking bus service through our hotel would be a better bet. Paying the extra dollar, we arranged a 7am pick up the next day. The front desk guy later suggested coming down for 6ish, as apparently we’d need to get motos to the tourist office. Not ideal, but okay.

Easy rider

At 5.50am the next morning, our room phone went to tell us the bikes were here. Hopping on the back, we assumed it would be short trip. 6km later, we were at the border, and clearly there would be no bus. Only one guy spoke English, and as we were stamped out of Vietnam into no mans land, we both knew we weren’t getting quite what we paid the hotel for! Despite reading a lot of posts online saying the border crossing should be $20, our ’guide’ insisted on it being $25, and despite our polite protests, it was getting us nowhere. So, we paid the extra for the visas, and then came the fabled medical check.

Basically a shack next to the visa building (a slightly bigger shack), a surgical mask wearing border guard asked us to fill out some forms to show that we weren’t full of disease. He then took Law’s temperature, pointing a thermometer at her forehead, seeming to be happy, and then asked for a dollar. We knew this was just a con, so while I started to get a bit annoyed Law stayed calm and said “no, I don’t think that’s right is it.” Staying polite, asking for a receipt and then showing our vaccine booklets and marriage certificate(!), he was finally satisfied. The highlight was, after Law said no, he turned sheepishly to the side, with the final gamble being “you don’t pay, you don’t go in” – the fact we already had visas at this point seemed a bit too much for him.

Goodbye Nam... Nearly

With a parting shot of “you should get a cancer vaccination next time you come to Cambodia”, we were in. But not far. With our biker guide, we then stood around and waited, while he seemed to haggle with some locals, he handed over some money and then left us, saying “pay no more”. A guy opened his boot, we put our bags in, and we waited another half an hour for him to fill up his car. Finally, with 5 of us crammed in the back, we set off toward Kep…

And of course, didn’t get quite that far. Stopping around 6 or 7km outside the village, the driver gave some money to another couple of moto drivers and off we went. They stopped and flagged down a couple of English speakers at different points, until they finally got us to our ridiculously idyllic hotel.


It only took just over 2 hours door to door, and was pretty funny, but we still felt a little bit ripped off. For anyone looking at doing this crossing, we booked through Hai Phu’ong Hotel – so be warned! We’re in Cambodia though, in a private bungalow with a pool by the beach, and were there by 8.30am relaxing . Not a bad start to our time here.


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Saigon to the Mekong

For our last week in Vietnam we spent time exploring the south. We started in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as everyone still calls it which is unbelievably busy with motorbikes and people everywhere and some torrential rainstorms.


We’ve visited a few of the Vietnam/American war museums including the War Remnants museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels which are a network of tiny tunnels where over a thousand people lived and fought underground during the war. They’ve made them wider to allow us chubby tourists down now, but it was still a pretty claustrophobic experience in there.

Cu chi tunnels

There are examples of the hideous traps that the Viet Cong used to capture American soldiers and Sam demonstrated his manly skills by firing an AK47.

Manly Sam

After Saigon we headed into the Mekong Delta and spent two nights in a homestay. We had our first experience on the back of a Vietnamese scooter, which we had successfully avoided up until now. It was quite fun and Sam even managed a video.


After Mr Hung and his family, our hosts, had taken us to their home we chilled out in our bamboo hut looking right over the river. The rustic thing is nice, but I did freak out a tiny bit at a massive gecko that was starring down at me from the ceiling when I woke up on the first day! Perhaps a bit too authentic…

Mr hungs homestay

On Sunday morning we were up at 5.30am to take a boat trip to the floating markets. The delta has such a large network of rivers that the local market takes place on the water. Each boat sells different fruit or vegetables and advertises what it has to sell by tying a sample to a tall pole on their boat


Cai rang market

After the market and some free pineapple we went around some of the smaller canals, visiting a farm and a rice factory, and saw local people washing and swimming in the rivers. We took a bike ride around the villages where Mr Hung showed us some of the fruits that grow and took us over a bamboo bridge, where all the local kids gathered happily to see if the westerners would fall off.

Bamboo bridge

We spent a nice few evenings eating great homemade food, learning how to make spring rolls, drinking happy water and learning the Vietnamese for “Cheers” – Moch, Hai, Bah, Yo!

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And relax… Hoi An, more than just custom tailors

After a couple of days in the very pleasant Hue, we moved on to Hoi An just a few hours down the coast. Aside from the bus stopping at a shopping centre full of pearl jewellery, which we stayed outside of in protest and fear, the journey was fine and we got to Hoi An at 11.30. We hadn’t booked, but had an idea of where we wanted to stay – Law was convinced that we’d get a better deal by haggling! Fortunately the town is quite small and the weather wasn’t too hot, so we made it to the hotel and ended up with a room a couple of dollars cheaper than online.

Trekking to the hotel

Hoi An is great – a tourist town for sure, but very different from the similarly sized Yangshuo in China. We haven’t been hassled or harassed by shops and restaurants, and it is so much quieter. The centre is called ’old town’, a collection of houses, shops and restaurants along the riverfront and in the narrow, winding alleys and roads off them. It feels like it could be very touristy, but the prices have been okay and the weather has been great. It is famous for its tailors, who will custom make anything for in a ridiculously quick timeframe, and which seem to be in every other building. However, we have avoided these – the bags are full enough as it is!

Tailors everywah

There are a number of cultural sites and sights in and around the town, and we’ve been here for 4 days, so… we have seen very few of them! Instead, we’ve hired bikes for a dollar and cycled out 4 or 5 km to the coast each day and chilled on the beach.

There are 2 main beaches, each a cycle ride away, with various restaurants and bars right on the sand. They aren’t too busy, but there are of course the loungers for hire and handful of locals trying to sell you everything from sunglasses to newspapers, nuts to ’jewellery’. Between the two beaches it’s all sandy coast, and on our first full day we found a great little spot to relax.

The road to secret beach

Following a track off the main road, we cycled down towards the sand dunes. Law’s chain came off, and as we got covered in oil trying to fix it, and very friendly local lady came out and tried to help. She then let us wash our hands in her cafe / house, before we used her sun loungers to be the only people on that stretch of beach. We had a good cheap lunch here as well, Vietnamese baguettes with beef, salad and herbs – so naturally we came back here for the next couple of days.

Private beach

It has felt a bit like being on holiday from travelling (which must sound rich), beaching it by day and wandering around the old narrow streets for food and insanely cheap beer by night (a glass is around 9 pence). We’re moving on to Ho Chi Minh City today though, beginning our last week in Vietnam. We also had a Skype meeting with our volunteer organiser at UBELONG, who gave us a lot more information on our placements in Phnom Penh. We’re now looking forward even more to these, to contributing something other than tourism to a place. Also, the thought of not having to pack and unpack the bags for more than 3 days is very comforting!

We just have the small matter of Saigon and the Mekong Delta to tackle first…

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10 days in ‘Nam

On the flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, I realised I’d forgotten to include the funniest / weirdest thing about China in my last post; the fact that Chinese people loved nothing more than taking photos of us. Talking to other travellers, this seems pretty common – as well as sneakily snapping away and giggling, quite a few came up to us and asked to pose. I thought I wouldn’t have an excuse to include this in a post, but within 24 hours in Hanoi it had happened again!

Hanoi is an amazing city, totally different from any of the Chinese cities. It’s very laid back and low key, and in the Old Quarter where our hostel was, it feels much smaller and more intimate. The traffic is still pretty mental though, with just about every person cruising round on scooters, with no regard for traffic rules. Sitting in a bar on the corner of a crossroads for a couple of hours on the first night, we saw groups and families of 4 or 5 crammed onto the bikes and zipping around the junction as if they were the only ones on the road. Don’t think we will be hiring bikes here…

Bikes in vietnam

Paddy hats

After a couple of days we arranged a tour out to Ha Long Bay, an incredible stretch of coast with almost 2000 limestone karst peaks and islands shooting up out of the water. The first day felt a bit like we were cattle being herded, following countless other boats to the same spots, cramming into the same famous cave and then hiking up the same peak.

Ha long bay

After braving the bugs in our cabin all night we were picked up early the next day by a smaller local boat, which was well worth the extra Dong.

We spent the day practically on our own, with hardly any other boats around. The sun came out and the entire day consisted of sunbathing, jumping from the boat into the sea and kayaking into lagoons through tiny caves and tunnels. To top it off, we saw monkeys! We did have some mild drama when the tour company phoned to say that the boat we had been on had broken down, so we spent a couple of hours imagining our bags at the bottom of the ocean, but they were in the new (and nicer) cabin at the end of the day.

Kayaking halong bay

The journey back to Hanoi took most of the following day, with the morning on the top deck and the afternoon in the minibus. That night, after spring rolls and beer, the only English language channels we could find were showing football or Titanic – Law won.

After Ha Long we had lined up another tour, this time to do some trekking in Sapa in the far north of Vietnam. Our night train was fine, with nicer cabins than China, but we did arrive a couple of hours late. We had booked a home stay in a small minority Hmong village with a local guide, around 12km away from the town. The first 500m were fine, until our group was stopped by ’government’ officials. Apparently, our guide hadn’t filled out the correct paperwork and so they wanted to take us to their offices in town. This is a standard scam in Southeast Asia, and not knowing what to think we took it easy and sat in the road.

Hmong guide

The guys, and by this point it seemed half the village men had come out, finally let us pass, after taking the the guides licence away and hooking us up with a new one. We were all thinking that the poor local guide woman had been screwed over, though we did later find out that she had been in the wrong – apparently she was taking the dollars for the entry fee and trying to sneak everyone into the valley without buying tickets!

It wasn’t a particularly taxing hike, but the views are breathtaking of the rice paddies, villages and mist topped mountains. We were followed down the mountain by several local women in traditional dress, who were friendly and helpful all the way – until we reached the bottom when they surrounded us and tried to make us buy crap! It was quite intense, so we did end buying a pretty pointless bag for a couple of bucks. They were good at guilt tripping.



We spent the night in a home stay, which is basically the loft of a building with a load of mattresses on the floor, but we were with a good group and the food was nice.

Spring rolls

We then spent two nights on trains, one into Hanoi and then again the following night onto Hue. The latter journey was less pleasant, in the hard sleeper class and over 2 and a half hours late, but we made it.

So, we’ve had intense monsoon rain, seen the ’Hanoi Hilton’ prison (full of propaganda about the American War and POWs), dived off a boat and kayaked through caves, seen low-level corruption, hiked through muddy tracks, haggled for a haircut and gotten millions of Dong out of the bank. Not bad for 10 days in ’Nam.

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