Vietnam : Culture and History

Vietnam : When you hear it, the first words that come to your mind are probably ‘Vietnam War’. Well, Vietnam’s got a potful of history, but it’s also got a potful of beauty and another potful of culture.

We flew into Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon (Capital of former South Vietnam) on the 16th of February from Phenom Penh, Cambodia. Check out my Cambodia blog -> click here.

Once we got off the plane, we were greeted by swarms of crowds of people, everywhere, after getting a sim card and exchanging some money. We were hungry, and it was breakfast time. Burger King was on one side, and Popeye’s on the other. The Popeye’s cashier did not really understand us, and there was nothing vegetarian except biscuits for my mother. We went over to Burger King. The cashier understood us, and was able to do a burger with just tomatoes, lettuce and cheese. The french fries were cold, and the coke was over-iced.

We had to catch a bus to Can Tho, so we headed off quickly by taxi to the bus station. Vietnam is one of the only five communist countries in the world. The others are N.Korea, China, Laos and Cuba. We later learnt that even though there is only one communist party, Vietnam is not exactly communist, because not everyone gets equal shares and education/healthcare is not free, etc.

The bus was very different and very innovative. It was a double-decker bus, with seats where you can extend your legs. You’re meant to take off your shoes, and when getting off at a break stop, they give you slippers!

We reached Can Tho, a town famous its floating markets. Can Tho also has a beautiful promenade by the Can Tho River, a branch of the Mekong River. The two floating markets we visited were – Cai Rang and Phong Dien. At night, electric lanterns are lit along the promenade. We began our search for a boat the next day. We wanted a boatman who could speak basic English, take us to the Rice Noodle Factory, through small canals and to both floating markets for 600 Dongs. One dong is $22,700. Usually, prices mean three zeros in the end (multiply by 1000). Its really hard to understand sometimes.

We were able to find a couple of people, some didn’t know English, some weren’t professional at all.  We decided we’d just take the chance of getting a boat in the morning. We ate at the #1 rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. Its was not fancy, and had good prices. It had things like snake, crocodile and ostrich on the menu! (We didn’t try any!)

The next morning, we set off from our hotel at 4:30 AM. We reached the dock around 4:45, and we saw the same faces as we did yesterday. We went to the lady who was most professional,  and knew the best English. She got very angry. It reminded us of our very own country. She said “I told you yesterday! You no book yesterday!” In brief, she was very angry that we didn’t book yesterday. Soon enough, we found a lady who was willing to take us at a good price and also take us wherever we wanted. Her younger sister was our boat-girl, and she was extremely nice. She knew good English, and was very kind.

Cai Rang was the better floating market of the two. It had so many more boats, and so much more variety of selling items (mainly fruits). We bought a coconut and a coffee. The boat selling looked like a chemistry lab! It had vessels, pots and jars full of things and steam coming out of several! The coffee and the coconut were both amazing. Wholesale boats (bigger ones) sold goods to the smaller boats. It was a unique site indeed.

Phong Dien, the other market was much less lively, with only about 15 small boats selling things. Nevertheless, a floating market is still unique.

The rice noodle factory was also unique. We saw traditional people making the traditional rice paper used for noodles and spring rolls. It was not a proper factory, but it was the traditional way of making it with no machinery.

We sailed through several small canals, with mangroves and water coconuts on both sides, reminding us a little of the Amazon and the Sunderbans. We stopped at the fruit gardens, and had a juice there. We got to see the local village there as well as several fruits.

That pretty much ended the day, and honestly, it was not up to expectations. Plastic was filled in the water, and continuously got stuck in the motor, and once, a small bird or butterfly flew out of a plastic bag!

The next day we headed to Bentre (pronounced Ben-Chaay), by taxi. The taxi ride lasted about 2 hours, and was very comfortable. We reached in the evening, to Oasis Hotel. We were here for 2 nights, and 1 day.

The next day we did the tour of Bentre. In all, we visited a coconut factory, a coconut candy factory, a mat weaving factory and had lunch at a local place. We also got to generally ride on a boat around the area. Keep in mind that these factories, are not proper buildings with uniforms and rooms for different activities.

The boats were really fascinating, with two eyes painted in the front to scare away crocodiles! So innovative!

The coconut factory produces various goods such as cosmetics,bowls, etc. Coconuts, we learnt, were the main source of livelihood for many. Since we went on a weekend, most people were off duty, but we got to see men husk coconuts one by one. We learnt that the men earn money based on how many coconuts they can husk in a day. If they’re fast, they earn $15-18 a day. They also have to send their kids to school. In a communist country, you’d expect school to be free. Hong, our wonderful guide, told us that when she was in school, school was $6 per year. Now, its $50 per month! If you calculate, that’s $600 per year. 100 times the amount of when she was in school.

Coconut kernels put into hot water for coconut milk

The next stop was the coconut candy factory. First, they put the coconut milk into a big pan over a flame along with some sugar and an additional ingredient to make it flavored coconut candy (chocolate, durian, etc). Then, they continuously stir it for about an hour until it becomes as thick as required. Then, they let it cool down for about 5 minutes. Then they spread some oil on a table, so that when they mould it, it wont’t stick. They mould it using a small piece of plastic/paper/cardboard (was not sure). They leave it for a long time after moulding to cool. Then, they wrap it in their desired wrapping (usually paper) and pack it off. We bought an original flavored one, as well as a chocolate flavored one. They also had snake/scorpion wine to try! My dad tried it, and said it tasted like bad whiskey!

Snake/Scorpion Wine!

Next stop was a mat weaving factory. Locals weaved sedge grass into mats extremely fast on a traditional weaver. It was incredible! My mother tried and was 1/10 times their speed! Many people from villages still prefer to sleep on these as they keep you feeling cooler.

After that, it was lunchtime. We had a wonderful meal, specially vegetarian for my mum. We also got to see fresh spring rolls made live, using rice paper, water and the filling! It was great! After that, we returned to our main boat by small boats through small canals, and we got to wear traditional rice hats!

We departed the next day to Ho Chi Minh City, satisfied with what we had done here. We ate a wonderful (DELICIOUS!) at Hum Vegetarian, highly recommended on TripAdvisor. Its very close to the War Remnants Museum.

The War Remnants Museum was awesome! It gave us such a great insight to the Vietnam War and Agent Orange especially. We were truly devastated at the amount of damage that America caused. It really made us cry, and is a must to go to.

Much worse effects of the Agent Orange were shown, but we were much too devastated to even take a picture. 🙁

 

For more info -> click here. I will be sure to upload a summary of the Vietnam War after some time.

In the evening, we went to the Ho Chi Minh square, the more posh area of HCMC. The classic HCM statue is there, along with many restaurants, cafes, and shops. We also saw girls wearing to local attire – Ao Dai, similar to the Salwar Kameez in India.

Another highlight of HCMC was the Cu Chi Tunnels. We had a fantastic guide who was hilarious! He told us to call him Mr.Bean (Hahahaha!) and he was a great guide. The Cu Chi Tunnels were built by the North Vietnamese guerrilla forces to hide away from the Americans. They strategised, ate, slept and did almost everything in there! Its crazy small and they used to run! Mr.Bean said that the main reason the Vietnamese won was because they didn’t eat hamburgers! The Cu Chi Tunnels extended upto hundreds of kilometers! But we only walked about 40m before we felt claustrophobic! You are allowed to walk 120m maximum.

A booby trap for dogs!
Going into the tunnels!
Sniper Home used to hide last minute!

Other than that, HCMC doesn’t have much. The reunification palace had really bad reviews, so we decided to skip it. HCMC is just a big city. From HCMC, we flew to Da Nang, and drove to Hoi An.

Hoi An is a very beautiful little town, not much ‘sightseeing’ to do, just a beautiful vibe around. It is also known as the ‘Home of Vietnamese lanterns’. It has beautiful Japanese and Chinese architecture that make up the ‘Old Town’. Hoi An is a big tourist destination and you can do lots of souvenir shopping here.

From Hoi An, we went to Hue. Hue is known for its tombs or the Emperors and its citadel. We were greeted by fog, rain and clouds. The tombs are much prettier than the Citadel. The Pagoda is also very beautiful.

From Hue, we went to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. Honestly, we shouldn’t have given it as much time as we did. In Hanoi, the main attractions are the Vietnamese Ethnology Museum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, the Night Market (Friday evening to Sunday evening), the Hoa Lo Prison and the Riverside.

Vietnamese Ethnology Museum
Vietnamese Ethnology Museum
Vietnamese Ethnology Museum
Hoa Lo – Women’s room
Hoa Lo Prison
Riverside

Next up was the famous Halong Bay. It is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Its a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went on the Bhaya Premium Cruise, and we didn’t regret one bit of it. The crew was fantastic, the boat was fantastic. We had only 12 other people on the boat, and we also got free a free Tai chi lesson and cooking class! The food was also just DELICIOUS! Our crew manager – Huy was absolutely great, and made sure that everything was nothing less that excellent from our view.

We also got to visit Surprise Cave, which reminded us of the Jenolan Caves in Sydney.

 

 

 

Cambodia : A Week of Beauty

Cambodia was on our itinerary for 6 days, which included Siem Reap (Angkor Wat and other temples) and Phnom Penh (Killing Fields and Genocide museum). Cambodian History is horrific (after the Khmer Rouge came into power). Click here to know more.

From Krabi, we took a flight to Bangkok, and transited to Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat and other religious buildings. We were staying very close to Pub Street, so we lots of eating options to choose from. ‘Fish Spas’ are all over Siem Reap, the common price $2 with a free drink included. Its basically putting your feet into a tank of fish. The fish actually suck off your dead skin! Most of Cambodia accepts USD, but also the local Riels.  We also found the tuk tuks here quite interesting – a cart like structure made of wood attached to the a motorbike. Our driver for the next 4 days – Sukham was great, very helpful and very gentle. Guides come at an extra charge, and don’t expect your tuk tuk driver to know great English. Go prepared on which gate you want to enter from and where you will meet him.

We visited the World’s largest Religious building – Angkor Wat in the evening for sunset. To be honest, Angkor Wat is overrated. I think for us, it was because there were too many people and lines to take pictures. Angkor Wat was designed to represent Mt. Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology and surrounded by a moat, to represent the seas.

The next morning was a big stop at the Angkor Wat for sunrise. Thousands of people gathered around as if an alien spaceship had just landed. The sun came only after sometime, and that was the real beauty. Most people leave by then, but we were lucky enough to look back, and then go back. We highly recommend buying a book – ‘Ancient Angkor’ which can be bought cheap after bargaining. We bought ours for $6.

The sun started rising, and the light was immortal

We headed to the Angkor Thom, an ancient area with many temples, the gateway entrance being a major beauty. With ‘The churning of the ocean milk’ being depicted, the Demons were on one side and the Gods on the other, the Naga serpents used as a rope.

The Gods on the left side
The Demons on the right side
Naga Serpent

We headed to Bayon, personally our favorite of all the temples in the Angkor area. Bayon is well known for its multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The outer wall of the outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer.

Close by, the Elephant terrace is widely visited. It is a 350m long platform, best viewed from the ground with mostly elephant sculptures. There is a small entrance, to a beautiful maze of sculptures and fine artwork known as the ‘Hidden Wall’, part of the Terrace of the Leper King.

The Hidden Wall
The Elephant sculptures in the Elephant Terrace

In the evening, we visited Angkor Wat once more. Angkor Wat is known as ‘The 8th wonder of the world’ and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular gallaries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last. A lot of the galleries depict scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Marine animals in a gallery

We were done for the day, after all, the sun won’t hide for you. In the evening, we visited the famous ‘Pub Street’ known for its restaurants. Most of them are overpriced, but the side streets are just as good for a better price. Another famous thing we noticed was ‘Fried Ice Cream Rolls’ which were delicious!

Fried Ice Cream Rolls

The next day we visited Banteay Samre, Banteay Srei and the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

Banteay Samre is much less appreciated, as it is far away. It is very beautiful and peaceful. It is similar to Banteay Srei. It is a Hindu Temple built in Angkor Style.

Banteay Srei is a little crowded, as there is less walking space. But, it is very beautiful with much intricate sculpture work. It is a Hindu Temple dedicated to the God Shiva.  The buildings themselves are miniature in scale, unusually so when measured by the standards of Angkorian construction.

Garuda – Eagles, Vishnu’s mount

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gave us a great insight to the bombings in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, since the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Cambodia. For more info -> click here. Aki Ra has worked for a long time to remove landmines, after thousands die every year. His story is very emotional, and is a great one indeed. The museum itself has lots of info.

The next day we visited Preah Khan, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and the Cambodia War Museum.

Preah Khan is flat in design, with a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous later additions. Like the nearby Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. Make sure that if you enter from the East side, you tell your driver to meet you on the West side.

Ta Prohm, unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Today, it is one of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region. The conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm is a partnership project of the Archaeological Survey of India and the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

Banteay Kdei also known as “Citadel of Monks’ cells”, Its structures are contained within two successive enclosure walls, and consist of two concentric galleries from which emerge towers, preceded to the east by a cloister.

The Cambodian War Museum focused on how Cambodia was bombed in the process of the Vietnam war. There’s LOTS of information, a free guide (a real victim) and lots of rusty old tanks and planes.

Phnom Penh was next. It is the capital of Cambodia, yet it felt like a not-so-crowded city, because we are from India. The name itself feels like a jewel. The main tourist attractions there are – Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum (s-21 prison).

The Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum was formerly the S-21 Genocidal Prison of the Khmer Rouge. Many horrors occurred in there, and information is very well given. We highly recommend the Audio Guides ($3), otherwise you will be lost! The Audio guide also gave us a huge insight to how things operated in there, stories of victims, etc. Its crazy, what happened in there, and we couldn’t help, but only shred tears and hope that humanity will do better. For much more info -> S-21 / Cambodian History

Interrogation Room

Single compartments, where prisoners were kept before death

The Choeung Ek Killing Fields was the main killing field in all of over 300 killing fields in all of Kampuchea (Cambodia). Over a million people were executed there, and any prisoner transported there never left. It was only a matter of who was killed first. Prisoners were transported blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs in trucks. There were many mass graves, the biggest contained over 400 bodies. A separate grave was found of headless bodies, another of naked women and children (who have suspected to be raped before execution). There is a special ‘killing tree’ which was used to kill children. Children were smashed onto this hard, rough tree and after death, were thrown into the mass grave. How can humans be so cruel to have a special tree for execution? Trees are meant to give oxygen for life, not to be smashed on for death.

And so our Cambodian adventure ended. Be got a big gulp of darkness of Cambodian history, a gulp of the famous Angkor Wat and other temples and in the end, we got information and knowledge. And information and knowledge is always good 🙂 Next up, Vietnam! 🙂

 

Sukhothai + Chiang Mai + Krabi

These three places constituted about 2 weeks of our stay in Thailand. Sukhothai was absolutely spectacular, with lots of ruins and calmness. Chiang Mai – for recollecting memories from when I came when I was 4 years old! Krabi was more for relaxation, and beautiful cliff-y beaches. Bangkok Blog : click here.

We came to Sukhothai after we visited Khao Yai National Park. The name ‘Sukhothai’ means ‘the dawn of happiness’.  It is located in lower Northern Thailand, and is famous for its ruins. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We also visited Si Satchanalai Historic park, which has some really beautiful ruins just 1 1/2 hours away from Sukhothai.

We reached in the afternoon, when it was burning hot, so we didn’t step out. In the evening, around 4, we went to see the Northern Zone of the Sukhothai Historical Park. Wat Si Chum and Wat Phra Luang are the main two Wats to see. The most common mean of transport is bicycle, which can be rented from rental shops or your hotel. The evening breeze is really nice and overwhelming, and the sunset is beautiful.

Wat Si Chum seats a Buddha image over 11 ft high inside a Mondop. The Buddha’s elegant fingers are much photographed. Jataka inscriptions are visible in a passage, but now blocked.

Wat Phra Phai Luang is a somewhat isolated Wat, and features three Khmer style towers – bigger than the ones in Wat Si Sawai of the Central Zone.

A wonderful dinner at Maeboonmee made us all satisfied, with great food (plenty of choice) and great price. That’s where we had our dinner the next night too.

The next day, we went to Si Satchanalai Historic Park. 50km North of Sukhothai, it is similar to Sukhothai, but more peaceful.

Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng is situated on the hill overlooking Wat Chang Lom. About 20 of the approx. 100 steps up, you’ll be tired, take it easy. A large stone Buddha and columns that once supported a roof are well visible.

Wat Chedi Jet Thaew contains seven rows of Chedi, the largest alike to one at Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai. An interesting brick-and-plaster effect on many, makes a design like barred windows.

Wat Nang Phraya – The “temple of the queen” is the first in a line of temples leading from the southeast wall up to the ridge that divides the city. It has the best remaining portion of wall that displays the intricate stucco-work that once decorated all of the temples at Si Satchanalai.

Wat Chang Lom or the ‘Temple surrounded by the Elephants’ has a Buddha image at the East end, and the Elephant sculptures are made of brick or stucco.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat – When entering the temple compound through the eastern gate, do not forget to look above the gate. There is a marvellous decorated pillar on top in good condition, with a Brahma head in four directions. Behind the main prang (the walkways are narrow) there are the remains of a stupa (chedi). Archaeologists suggest in is a Mon-style stupa, indicating it is an early structure at the site.

Wat Chao Chan is draped in trees, the multi-tiered prang has reticulated corners that resemble lotus pedals rising to a pointed top.

The next day, we decided to do the Central Zone of the Sukhothai Historic Park. We left around 8 from our hotel, and returned around 10:30, to catch a bus. It is absolutely beautiful in the morning, and extremely peaceful.

Wat Si Sawai‘s main feature is famous for its three Khmer style prangs. It initially started as a Hindu temple, but became a Buddhist Wat later.

Wat Sa Si is located a couple of hundred meters North of Wat Mahathat. It is located on its on small island surrounded by the lotus-filled  Tra Phang Tra Kuan pond.

Wat Mahathat is the most impressive and most important temple in the Sukhothai Historic Park. Main structures at Wat Mahathat include : the central group with a lotus-bud shaped chedi, four corner smaller stupas and four Khmer-style prangs in the cardinal positions ; assembly hall (to the east) with seated Buddha Image ; two mandapas (square buildings) located north and south of the central group, each with a tall standing Buddha Image ; ordination hall to the north, with seated Buddha Image.

That ended our beautiful visit to Sukhothai. We took a bus to Chiang Mai from there. We made a big mistake by not taking a bus from the company ‘Wintour’, and chose ‘Esan’, only because there was a toilet on the bus! The bus was late, and there was no toilet! But anyways, we reached Chiang Mai around 6:30 in the evening, and headed straight to our hotel to relax.

Chiang Mai was on our list, mainly because I had gone there when I was 4 years old, and wanted to recollect some memories :). Our first day was a relaxed day, with only the Australian Open Men’s Finals : Roger Federer vs Rafal Nadal occupying our agenda. Our hotel’s TV was not showing it, so my father had to research a place to watch it. He found DownUnder Pub, run by an Aussie. They show all kinds of sports : cricket, tennis, etc. My father is a HUGE Federer supporter, and was glad to find no-one who didn’t there.

The second day we visited the Wats of Chiang Mai – Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Doi Suthep and Wat Phra Singh.

Our favourite was Wat Doi Suthep, which is actually located on top of a mountain, and the journey up itself is a pleasure. Once up, you have to walk 309 steps to get to the temple, and 309 back out. It features an enormous golden Chedi, 600 years old.

View of Chiang Mai from the top!

The stairs- Just keep going!

Wat Chedi Luang – the Temple of the ‘Royal Pagoda’, was built about 600 years ago, and most of the Chedi is destroyed. Like most Wats, it is occupied by Buddha images.

Wat Phra Singh  is regarded as the most interesting Wat in Chiang Mai. You find yourself in a parking lot, after which you see the main prayer hall. There is a Chinese influence here, with dragons and lion-like creatures.

The next day in Chiang Mai was spent in Elephant Nature Park, where we got to bathe, feed and bond with rescued elephants. The elephants were previously used in circuses, for elephant rides, etc. They seem totally okay in the circuses, but really are not. They go through a hard process before the show, where they are hurt and misused, and are made to feel like they want to kill themselves. Some are even blind, or deaf, or both. They showed us a video, which really brought tears to all of us, especially my mother. We had come here almost 10 years ago, when I was 4, and heere are some Then vs Now pics :

Then : Feeding
Now : Feeding
Then : Bathing
Now : Bathing

The next day, we went to Doi Inthanon mountains, for some bird-watching. It was wonderful, but we would not rank it VERY highly, although there are some beautiful birds, but not easy to spot, not easy to see, not easy to photograph.

A Scarlet Minivet
A Great Tit
A Minla

Our last morning, we went to the Art in Paradise Museum, because I love art. It was truly different, and very beautiful, indeed. You never understand the illusions, until you see them live, and after you leave you can’t understand again! Beautiful 3D art, as well as 2D art.

That ended our visit in Chiang Mai, after which we took a flight to Krabi in the afternoon. We reached at night, around 7, and to our hotel – Real Relax Resort around 8. Real Relax Resort was indeed very relaxing, and very homey.

Our first day in Krabi was spent in Railly Beach. My father had researched the best part of the beach and found it to be Phra Nang Cave Beach. Indeed very beautiful, with cliffs everywhere and a beautiful landscape. You can rent a kayak, which we did, and it was worth it!

The ride there in ‘long-tailed boats’

We found the tuk-tuks in Krabi particularly interesting, a motorbike with a different style kart attached on the side!

The next day was spent in Phi Phi Island, whoch was honestly, not that great. EXTREMELY SALTY WATER, overpriced drinking water. My father had come here a couple of years ago, and said it was worth seeing. He regretted saying it once we reached. Nevertheless, there was a good lunch.

From there, we went to a new hotel – Peace Laguna Resort which gave us a beautiful view of the cliffs, and easy access to the beach for some beautiful sunsets.

That ended our lovely three weeks in Thailand, along with Khao Yai National Park and Bangkok. Next up : Cambodia 🙂

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Khao Yai National Park is the oldest National Park of Thailand (First), and the third largest of the country. It has an area of 2,168 sq km. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site. We went around with Greenleaf Tours. We stayed at the Greenleaf Guesthouse.

We reached in the afternoon, and went for the half day tour in the evening, which included stalagmites and stalactites underground caves, where Buddhist worship is done  (We were lucky to see bats, tarantulas and other freaky insects!), swimming in a natural spring (we just walked around and saw some white squirrels), and two million bats going out at sunset to hunt.

Golden SIlk Orb Weaver
White Squirrel
Natural Spring, behind.
Cicada
Centipede
A Bat

CLICK HERE TO SEE 2 MILLION BATS GOING TO HUNT! (MY OWN VIDEO) [Wait for it to load]

The full day tour the next day was the real deal. We left around 8:15 AM, and got back around 7:00 PM. The main idea is to see as much of the wildlife as possible – gibbons, horn bills, macaques, wild elephants, reptiles, insects and many bird species. We visited the visitor’s center briefly, to read about the park and go to the toilet. Then, we went on a trek to find some birds and explore some beautiful vegetation. We had a vegetarian lunch of rice and curry. Then, went on a drive to another location for trekking, and then to a beautiful waterfall. We were very lucky to see 4 elephants during the day! There are only two hundred in 2,000 sq km! We also saw a snake, turtle, macaques, water dragons, a crocodile, butterflies, 3 types of Horn-Bills (Great Horn-Bill, Pied Horn-Bill and Wreathed Horn-Bill) and a kingfisher!

Turtle
A Macaque
Lots of them!
Lots of butterflies!
Banded Kingfisher
Female Wreathed Hornbill
Male Great Hornbill feeding a female inside who is sitting on an egg
Rhino Horned Spider
Crocodile
Water Dragon

Khao Yai was such a great experience! We met some amazing people and saw so many amazing things, handcrafted my God himself. 🙂

Bangkok, Thailand : Culture and Shopping Paradise

To begin our last leg of our giant journey, South-East Asia, Thailand was the first country we touched. On 19th January 2017, we landed into Bangkok very early morning around 3AM. We got our luggage, and exchanged some money. We highly recommend buying a tourist sim card at the airport itself, because other dtac,truemove and other companies’ stores in the city don’t always have all the offers, and sometimes are even out of sim-cards!

Bangkok is a very different city, than many others I’ve seen, including some places around. Its got a mix of modernity as well as ancient temples. Bangkok has some great places around to do day trips to as well, such as Ayutthaya and the Thailand-Burma ‘Death Railway’.

All over Thailand, at least in the cities, you’ll find 7 11’s almost….. EVERYWHERE! They’re little convenience stores that have snacks, basic things like milk and yogurt, basic cosmetics, etc. They also sell sim cards.

We took our taxi to our hotel, unpacked and got some sleep.  ‘Some sleep’ turned out to be 7 hours of sleep. I woke up at 12! We were too tired and lazy to go out anywhere, and used the time to organize ourselves. In the evening, we decided to go to the MBK Shopping center. MBK is a world famous shopping center, where you can get everything – from an Iphone to Adidas Jackets, from the latest gizmos to fake Rolex Watches! We got the tourist privilege card, which gave us a free welcome drink (Thai Iced Tea), and some discounts at some shops! We got there by the BTS, which is the skyrail, absolutely jam-packed, everyone on their phones, and outside the stations- complete traffic. Bangkok traffic is famous, and we’re proud to say that we have experienced quite enough of it. MBK is a great place for bargain, and a great place to get things for friends and family, because of buy 2 for 100THB, 4 for 150THB kind of deals.

Chinese New Year Celebrations
Local dinner at MBK

On our second day, we went to Ayutthaya. We got up early, and were at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train Station in time. But, when wwe went to the ticket booth, there were no seats (the train was full!), so we paid 350THB per person for the first-class train at 8:30, so we didn’t have to wait for the sun to burn us, or for any of us to become impatient and sick of travel already. But, the train was comfortable! With reclining seats and AC, and a free snack, it was the way too go.

Ayutthaya was once described as the most wealthy city of the East. It accepted many foreign from India, Vietnam, Burma, Japan and Iran and later on traders from France, Spain, Netherlands and Portugal. In the middle of the 16th century, the kingdom came under several attacks by the Burmese, and later on the Thai attacked the Burmese too. This war was known as the Burmese-Siamese War. This war resulted in the end of the kingdom. For more info – History and Things to do/Tourism.

We got off our train and looked at the timings for 3rd class trains back to Bangkok, just so we had an idea. The way most tourists go around is by tuk-tuk (for those doing everything in one day). They have a fare of about 300THB per hr. My father had read online that you can get it for 200THB per hr. At first they wouldn’t agree. But, we’d done this before, so we walked off and 2 minutes later, they came back agreeing. Tell the driver which Wats you want to visit, and he’ll take you in an order. Take how much ever time you want inside the Wats, and go to the next one. Make sure you remember your start and end time, so you pay the right amount.

We had 6 wats on our list, in this order :                                                           Wat Chai Mang Khon                                                                                          Wat Phanan Choeng                                                                                                  Wat Mahathat                                                                                                            Wat Mongkhon Bophit                                                                                            Wat Phra Si Sanphet                                                                                                Wat Chaiwatthanaram                                                                                              Off all, we liked Wat Chai Mang Khon and Wat Mahathat the most.

Wat Chai Mang Khon
View from the top of Wat Chai Mang Khon
Reclining Buddha at Wat Chai Mang Khon
Wat Chai Mang Khon
Wat Phan Choeng
The famous head of Buddha with tree roots grown around at Wat Mahathat.
Buddha head awith tree roots around, Wat Mahathat
Prang (Pagoda) in Wat Mahathat
Wat Mahathat
Buddha heads cut off by the Burmese at Wat Mahathat

Wat Monkhon Bophit was actually closed, due to renovation.

One of the Three famous Chedisi at Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Wat Chaiwatthanaram

In the evening, we decided to get a famous Thai Massage, to treat ourselves after a day of a lot of walking. We went to the famous ‘Lek’ Massage, and were mind-blown by what kind of hands the girls have. The main difference between Western Massages and Thai Massages is that Thai Massages focus on pressure points.

The next day, we decided to go to the Chatuchak market. Chatuchak is a famous weekend market, from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Chatuchak is a big bargain market, and you can find lots of great buys.

Coconut water and ice cream is a big thing in Thailand

It gets really hot in the day, and with so many people, its a bit of a sweatbox. We got there by taxi, going through lots of traffic, it took us an hour! I recommend going by MRT(underground) or BTS(skyrail). MRT has seats, unlike the BTS and also has much lesser people generally.

The next day, we went to the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. It was a 415 km railway built between Thailand(Bangkok) and Burma(Rangoon), built by the Japanese to transport arms to extend their empire during the  World War II, mainly to get India. The Japanese used forced labour and allied prisoners of war. About 250,000 Asian laborers out of which 90,000 died and 61,000 allied POWS of which 16,000 died. The working conditions were horrific, with maltreatment, sickness and starvation. The most famous part of the railway is the ‘Bridge over River Kwai’. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery has the bodies of several POW laborers. The Americans took all the dead bodies back to America. The Japanese used Australians, Dutch, British, Javanese, Malay Tamils, Burmese and Chinese. The Death Railway Museum and Research Center in Kanchanaburi provides lots of information.

We went to Bangkok’s Hualamphong station, to find all the seats full, and had to go to Thonburi Station. We had to wait for about 2 hours, but it was all okay in the end. We were quite impressed by how well everything was well maintained. After a train left, someone would go pick up the garbage (very less!) using tongs! Coming from India, to another Asian country, this was quite amazing. The train journey lasted 3 hours.

Cleaning up!

The train

The Bridge over River Kwai

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

We had a wonderful vegetarian lunch for a great price at On’s Thai – Issan. We got back at Thonburi at around 6:30 PM.

The next day, after a wonderful sleep, we decided to go to some Wats in Bangkok. With terrible traffic and a scorching sun, we wanted to finish everything as fast as possible. The two Wats we visited were : Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Wat Pho was easy to access, and we got there by Ferry. Wat Pho impressed us, with its architecture and famous HUGE reclining Buddha. Wat Arun was mainly under a scaffolding, which took away its beauty.

Wat Pho
A heavy Chinese influence at Wat Pho
A heavy Chinese influence at Wat Pho
Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Wat Pho
Wat Arun under the scaffolding
Wat Arun

The next day, we left early for Khao Yai National park, about 3 hours from Bangkok. More about that in the next blog 🙂

 

Victoria: Home of the Great Ocean Road

Victoria was also on top of our lists, because of the Great Ocean Road. The Philip Island near Melbourne is home to the World’s Smallest Penguins- Little Penguins! Melbourne itself doesn’t have much to offer – Victorian-style buildings and the Melbourne cricket ground.

We landed into Melbourne, took our rental car and headed straight to Anglesea – The beginning of the GOR after buying some groceries, for the night. We got up fresh and early for the GOR day. We covered a big portion of it – from Anglesea to Port Campbell.

On the way, we stopped at the Twelve ApostlesLoch Ard Gorge, London Arch, Kennett River, Tower Hill Reserve and Anglesea Golf Club.

Anglesea Golf Club is known for its Wild Grey Kangaroos. Although it is a golf club, the roos and wild and you have to take a tour to see them. They’re there in huge numbers, and its worth it. They’re tagged by Melbourne University for research purposes.

The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks off the shore of Port Campbell National Park by the Great Ocean Road. There are currently eight apostles left. They collapse by erosion of the limestone and the force of waves.

The Loch Ard Gorge is about 3 minutes from The Twelve Apostles. Stairs allow you to visit one side of the gorge. The London Arch, formerly known as London Bridge is an offshore natural arch formation. It crashed unexpectedly in 1990, leaving 2 tourists on the outer span, to be rescued by helicopter. No-one was injured.

Loch Ard Gorge
London Arch

Kennett River is known for koalas. Lots of eucalyptus trees grow here, the natural habitat for koalas. We saw 2! There’s plentiful of King Parrots and Sulphur Crested Cockatoos around, who’ll come on your head, arms and shoulders. You can buy bird food for them from Koala Cafe, just next to the road. The cockatoos are complete bullies, shoving off the parrots just to get a good seat! Their claws made marks on my arm, still visible after a month, so wear a jacket!

King Parrot
Sulphur Crested Cockatoos
Koala!

Tower Hill reserve is home to Koalas, Emus, Kangaroos and waterbirds. It is an inactive volcano, surrounded by Crater Lake. We saw 2 Koalas and a bunch of Emus! The Koalas reminded me of the sloths in the Amazon.

We stayed the night at Port Campbell, and went back to Melbourne in the morning. We reached by evening, too tired to do anything. The next morning, we went around Melbourne, got some Australia souvenirs, and went to Philip Island in the evening. Philip Island is home to the Little Penguins – World’s smallest penguins. The Penguins are completely wild, and fenced seating areas are made for people. The penguins come back after a long day in the sea to their burrows. It gets cold in the evening, so bring protection! They come out a bunch at a time, scared of predators. The brave ones scurry ahead, and into the bushes they go! Photography is prohibited when they’re coming out of the water.

The next morning we headed to see Melbourne City (not much) and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The ground was beautiful, but we felt the guides were too formal. The ground is huge and very well maintained. The dressing rooms were huge! We also went into the MCG museum. The museum is absolutely awesome! Especially the down half of it! Its got tons of exciting games to test you! Just so much fun! I lost 2 hours there! In the evening, we visited a close friend of my parents.

Victoria was much more than expected 🙂

 

New South Wales : Sydney and Blue Mountains

We were rewarded with much more than we had expected in NSW. We spent three days in Blue Mountains, and another three in Sydney. Blue Mountains gave us a fabulous experience with Wild Grey Kangaroos! To know the types of Kangaroos and the difference between Kangaroos, Wallabies and Walaroos click here.

Blue Mountains National Park was beautiful. There are lots of pretty lookouts, walks, camping grounds, etc. You can also drive down to spectacular Jenolan Caves.

We went to Wentworth Falls, Jenolan Caves, The 3 sisters’ lookout, Euroka Clearing and some other lookouts here and there. The two major Highlights were Jenolan Caves and the Euroka Clearing.

Jenolan Caves is about 40-50 kilometers from Katoomba, and 140-150 kilometers from Sydney.  And its worth the visit. Its one of the most visited limestone caves in Australia. They include numerous Silurian marine fossils and the calcite formations, sometimes pure white are well noted for their beauty. It is still being explored, and is illuminated for tourists. It was discovered by Europeans, and was open to tourism early. Since tourism was not well developed then, visitors damaged formations, broke off some to take home and wrote their names on the rocks. The Lucas Caves are known for its Cathedral Chamber, for weddings, due to its size and features – similar to a Church.

You may be wondering why Euroka Clearing was a highlight. Well, my father had researched for places to see Wild Kangaroos in the area, and this came up. At first, we were quite disappointed, and even more so, when a couple of professional campers said that this was the wrong time, and that the Roos only come out in the evenings and early mornings. But on our way back to our car, my mom started photographing a bird, and when she looked down she saw a group of Roos! It was amazing, watching them for an hour or so. Although Kangaroos are not so close to extinct, its not that you find wild ones everywhere! We were lucky enough to see two females, one male, two youths and one joey! We even got to see them hopping! It made all our friends and family jealous!

The Wentworth Falls and Three Sisters’ lookout is very beautiful. Both aren’t too long walks to get to. The Three Sisters’ lookout is basically three rock formations in the huge Jamison Valley.

Sydney is a beautiful city, home to many business oriented people. We loved the Opal Card which gave us access to all kinds of public transport! The main attractions for us were the Sydney Opera HouseHarbour BridgeSydney Cricket Ground, Bondi Beach and Coogi Beach.

You can finish the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Ferry, Botanical Gardens, etc. all in one day because they all are in the same area. The classic photo you want of the Opera House and Harbour bridge can be taken from the end of the Botanical Gardens. Take a walk across the Harbour Bridge and you’ll get a good enough aerial view of the Opera House, but the closer you go, it doesn’t seem like the pictures. But go ahead, peek inside the windows and take nice photo-shoots against the white walls.

The Sydney Cricket Ground was a must for us, because we love cricket, here in our India! The SCG is very historic and old-fashioned and has beautiful grass. Members of the SCG have HUGE advantages, The SCG tour also takes you into the Allianz Stadium (rectangle field sports), through the Walk of Honour, to the top of the ground, to the practice pitches, media center, to the dressing rooms and to the SCG Museum.

The Bondi Beach is a very free-flowing beach with historic-looking buildings on one side, surfers, street art and a skate park. Coogi Beach is very, very beautiful too. There’s lesser people, and the beach is truly beautiful. Its a great place to build a sandcastle!

Above: Bondi Beach. Below: Coogi Beach.

I hope this blog helped you/entertained you 🙂

Ayers Rock (Uluru) – A Wonder

Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located 335 km south of Alice Springs. It is part of the Uluru + Kata Kjuta National Park. It is a semi-arid region, not complete desert. There are a lot of cave paintings there too. The local Anangu, the Pitjantjatjara people, call the landmark Uluṟu.  It is one of Australia’s more recognizable landmarks. It lies very close to the center of the country. Kata Tjuta is also known as the Olgas. Two thirds of Uluru is actually underground! It has a total circumference of 9.8 kilometers. Kata Tjuta (pronounced Kata Joota) is a formation of 36 domes, the highest Mount Olga (1,066 m above sea level). There are well-paved roads, lookouts, hikes, etc. You have a chance of seeing red kangaroos, varieties of birds, lizards, dingos, etc.

What amazes all of us is that Uluru isn’t a mountain! Its a rock! Just one gigantic piece of rock! Two thirds of it is actually underground! How crazy is that?? There’s like, 3 flights that go to and from Uluru each day, as far as I can remember. There’s a Supermarket there, so if you are self-catering, like we did, its got you covered. We reached around 1 PM. It gets really hot between 12-4 PM, so you want to complete major activities before then, watch the sunset after, and watch the local shows in the remaining time. We headed for sunset the first day at about 3 PM, and reached around 3:30. We stayed till about 7-7:30. I even sketched the rock! It amazing to see how the color appears to change as the sun sets. Just set yourself down, and enjoy the peacefulness. After 6, it starts getting a little crowded, so make sure you finish your major photo shoots before then. But, if you come late and want someone to photograph you, you’ll have no problem finding someone.

The next morning, we woke up early, to see the sunrise of Kata Tjuta as well as Uluru and the Valley of the Winds Walk. You can guess why Valley of the Winds is called by its name. Yeah, you guessed right! Its very windy! One point for you! Or ten points to whatever Hogwarts house you’re in! There’s three trails, all follow the same path, so whenever you’re done, you can turn around and walk right back. But if you’re doing the full circuit (7.4 Km), its a circuit. We did the full circuit, and if you don’t do it, you’re missing out on seeing the domes up close. Its very beautiful and gives you a great insight into the semi-arid region. Make sure you start early though, the heat won’t wait for you!

Uluru at sunrise

Kata Tjuta at sunrise

Valley of the Winds

The Domes
A Goana

We watched some of the free aboriginal shows during the afternoon and evening, including the aboriginal dance, a story from their culture represented in a play, and a guided tour of the museum, an astrology video, etc. ALL FREE! 🙂 We had a good night’s sleep, because the next day, we had to get up at 3:00 AM, and drive for four hours to Kings Canyon.

So Kings Canyon is far from Uluru. Its famous for its Rim Walk. The Walk Entrance actually closes at 9 AM because of heat warnings. So, people get dehydrated and end up there for a long time. Its a 6.8 Km walk, so give yourself time to get out latest by 11. Cause’, it gets really hot. We started feeling the heat at about 8:30, but we were half and hour to done by then. On the drive there, keep your eyes out for wildlife! We were lucky enough to see a dingo, as well as a male red kangaroo (my mom didn’t see it) for two seconds before it jumped back into the bushes! PS: The most tiring part of the walk is the beginning, after that, everything is flat.

Dingo!

The next morning after that, we went for sunrise at Uluru’s sunset point. It was so much more crowded, but after the actual sunset, the crowds disappear. The sky is like an art palette, and you can see Kata Tjuta in the distance. It is also a different view of Uluru. We also did the Mala Walk and walked a little bit around the base of Uluru. We did not climb Uluru. The local people ASK you not to climb, but let the decision rest in your hands. You can injure yourself, and there is no harness, only a iron chain which heats up in the sun. Your polyester shorts will burn when you try to slide down.  Uluru is very rough, not as smooth as it looks from far.

TOUCHING ULURU

And so, another tick done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Aboriginal Land

Personally, I found the Aboriginal culture very interesting. When I visited Egypt, the culture didn’t STICK with me. I think the reason is because the culture doesn’t live on today. The local Aboriginal people are still there, living the way they lived thousands of years ago. Of course, now they have appliances to help them out, they help rangers of National Parks preserve natural beauty. They don’t wander from place to place like they did before and they share their knowledge with the tourists. They also tell their kids the stories that their grandparents told them.

We flew to Darwin from Cairns, after our Great Barrier Reef Experience, to go around the North of Northern Territory.  *This blog does not feature Uluru (Ayers Rock)* [Check out the difference between Kangaroos, Wallaroos and Wallabies]

We stayed in Darwin for 2 nights, 1 day. We visited the Darwin Botanical Gardens and Darwin Museum. The Darwin Museum has some very beautiful and interesting Aboriginal Art, a section on Cyclone Tracy, animals of the region, and layouts of birds and butterflies of the region. The Botanical Gardens have various sections : Rainforest, Desert, etc. The Museum also has a section on Sweetheart, a male croc, 17 ft long. He was an estuarine croc responsible for various attacks in the Territory Parks. In July 1979, the Wildlife Commission decided to transport him into a croc farm. They caught him and tranquilized him. Unfortunately, the tranquilizer’s dosage was too much, so his body functions to stop him from drowning shut down, and he drowned. Sweetheart’s body is on display, and there is a small video on him as well.

Cyclone Tracy
Sweetheart

From Darwin, we drove to Litchfield National Park. Litchfield has Magnetic Termite mounds, which are north-south aligned, which means that they are not round, they are straight, pointing North-South. There is also one HUGE cathedral termite mound (regular), only HUGE. We took a swim at Buley Rock Holes and at Florence Falls (TONS OF FISH). We saw a dead Wallaroo who was hit by a vehicle. It was a male, and was astonishing. We stayed the night in the town of Katherine.

Magnetic Termite Mounds
Cathedral Termite Mounds
Buley Rock Holes
Florence Falls
A dead Wallaroo

In the morning, we went to see the Katherine Gorge by Cruise (2 Gorge Tour), part of Nitmiluk National Park. Keep your eyes out for Wallabies (THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!) and birds like the Blue-Faced HoneyEater and Red-Winged Parrot. Keep your eyes out for Rock Art, Crocs and listen to your guide! They tell you tons of interesting info!

Red winged parrot
A Wallaby
The Gorge

We drove to Kakadu National Park from there, and stayed in Cooinda Lodge. We reached by afternoon, so we visited the Aboriginal Culture Center and Ubirr Rock. The Culture Center really gives you a great insight of the local indigenous people and general aboriginal culture and beliefs. At the Ubirr Rock Art Site, there’s lots and lots of Rock Art and natural rock structures. On your drive there, keep your eyes open for Wallaroos! We saw one!

A Wallaroo!

In the morning, we took the Yellow Waters Cruise. We saw MANY birds, crocs, vegetation, and learnt tons of things! Our guide was really funny and understandable.

Fish Eagle
Forest Kingfisher
Whistling Ducks! – They don’t quack!
Comb Crested Jakana

We drove to Jabiru from there. We spent two nights there, in Mercure Kakadu Hotel, famous for its crocodile-shape architecture. There isn’t much in the town, don’t expect much. There’s very limited eating options- Jabiru Sports Club, Mercure Kakadu Hotel, Kakadu Lodge or the Bakery.

We drove back to Darwin Airport after that, for a flight to Sydney. Stay tuned. 🙂

Great Barrier Reef – An Entire New World

I remember it, ever so clearly, how the fishes swam past me, almost like I didn’t exist. Except when I went very close, then they would swim away so delicately, but only for a few seconds. The corals surrounded me, making me feel so small, like I was just a dot in the world.

I made two trips onto the reef. Tours operate from Cairns. Cairns has a lot to offer. There is a lot of things to do around Cairns, such as the Cape Tribulation, Daintree Rainforest, Atherton Tablelands, etc.

Our first visit was through Compass Cruises. There were 60+ people. The crew was extremely funny. They took us to Paradise Cove and Hastings Reef. Paradise Cove was a great place, but Hastings Reef was better. I took a dive at Paradise Cove. It was wonderful (I’ve dived before), but nearly towards the end, I felt like my regulator stopped working, and quickly swam up to the surface. Fortunately, I’m a strong swimmer. They had told us not to swim up to the surface ourselves, but at the time, my brain just didn’t function. The surface looked close, but it was very deep, and I just felt like I was going to die. Not trying to stop anyone from diving! But when I came up to the surface, the instructor was in front of me, holding me, so I’m not sure whether he brought me up, or I brought myself up. Then, he called for someone to get me. But it was awesome! Fortunately it happened very close to the end, so I didn’t miss out on much. We saw sea slugs, tons of coral, lots of fishes, and I even got to see Nemo (Clownfish)! Unfortunately, I didn’t take my underwater camera for the dive. But, all the memories are safely in my head.

Paradise Cove Pictures :

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Hastings Reef was wonderful too! I didn’t dive here, but the corals were lovely! I got to see Nemo again here! There were lots more fish, and the corals were much closer to you.

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Our second trip to the GBR was actually on my birthday! It was such an amazing birthday, that I’ll never ever forget! How many people get to be on the GBR for their 13th birthday? We went with Seastar, and it was much different. There were much lesser people (About 30) and the boat was faster (So we got to spend more time actually snorkeling) The two locations were Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef. SeaStar is the main GBR tour operator. They also have free pictures service, which is wonderful, most other operators don’t. You ask for a picture, they take one, and you can save it from their Facebook page. They also take really great pictures of the marine life. Michaelmas Cay is a sand island which was actually made by the parrot fish! Its got tons of corals and fish, and if you go with SeaStar, spend as much as time as you can in the water, take pictures before the big boats come and make the waters very choppy.

Michaelmas Cay:

Hastings Reef itself is HUGE, and it felt like it was a whole new place. Its so much deeper, you’ll have much more chance to find big fish and sharks. You’ll find Nemo here too!

I’ve been to many, many places for snorkeling and Scuba Diving. The GBR was wonderful. There is so much Coral Life and Fishes. If you are lucky, you’ll see Sharks, Rays and Whales. And if you loved Finding Nemo/ Finding Dory you’ll love it!

BTW : DID YOU KNOW THE GBR IS THE ONLY LIVING THING THAT YOU CAN SEE FROM SPACE? 🙂