In 2004 I decided to take six months off work and spent much of this time exploring Asia.
by Cat19 on June 28, 2009
In 2004 I was able to take a four month trip around Asia. China has always fascinated me and as the northernmost country included in my plans, it was the first country on the itinerary. My overall plan was to travel through Asia from north to south and I followed the same strategy in China, so for me, first stop Beijing. Beijing~~~~I arrived in Beijing in the early morning after a ten hour flight from London. After catching up with sleep, I spent what was left of the day walking to and exploring Tiananmen Square. The square is vast. Actually it is a rectangle, 500m wide and 900m long. At one end there is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Qianmen gate, which is the view one normally sees in pictures of the square. In the middle of the square is the "Monument to the People’s Hero’s" and at the other end is Tiananmen Gate, behind which lies the Forbidden City. From memory, I don’t believe you actually access the Forbidden City this way. Along the long sides of the Square are a couple of museums.I didn’t go into the museums or the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall as I am not a huge fan. I stuck to looking at the monuments and the other visitors who seemed happy to sit on the ground and stare at Chairman Mao’s picture. The second most fascinating attraction for many of the Chinese was undoubtedly me and I will never forget quite how much and how obviously I was stared at in this square. I presumed that the square attracts a lot of Chinese visitors from outside Beijing who are totally unaccustomed to westerners. Another day and I was very excited about visiting the 15th century built Forbidden City. The city contained the palaces of various Chinese dynasties and is so called as common people were not allowed to enter. Sadly, it did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. The city is broadly rectangular and about 1,000m by 750m so wear comfortable shoes. But I found that one part looked much the same as the next and the whole area was ruined for me by scaffolding, green plastic and advertising billboards all over the place. I would not suggest missing it, but it could have been so much better.My favourite and most memorable experience in and around Beijing, in fact in the whole of China, was my visit to the Great Wall. I visited the Simatai section, which is a 2.5 hour drive from central Beijing, but is in its original state, large sections are intact and it is not overrun with visitors like the sections closer to the city are.The walk is divided into sections punctuated by watchtowers. I found out afterwards that it was possible to walk as far as watchtower twelve, however on my day trip I was told that we had to turn back at watchtower seven. It was a very steep and difficult path and when I looked up from the bottom I didn’t think I would make it. I was really pleased to get to tower six (out of what I thought was seven) and only one person in my group of ten did make it to number seven, the path to it being at something like 70 degrees. You do need to be reasonably fit to get this far, I had been going to the gym daily for a couple of months prior as I was off work, however even if you only made it to watchtower three or four, the views are still fabulous looking up or down.I cannot recommend this section of the wall enough over the other more convenient and commercial choices available. Beijing has some beautiful parks and I visited Beihai Park and the Summer Palace. Of the two, I preferred Beihai Park, which used to be part of the Forbidden City. I wandered around the park in broadly a circular route around the huge lake in the middle. It took a few hours as there is plenty to see, including Chinese pavilions, the colourful Nine Dragon Wall and it is possible to walk over a bridge to Jade island in the middle of the lake to see the White Dagoba, a Tibetan style tower built in honour of a much earlier Dalai Lama by the Chinese empire. Other things I did in Beijing and would recommend included visits to the Confucius Temple, the Lama temple and to the Bell and Drum Tower. I would also highly recommend taking a rickshaw ride around the Hutongs, which are a maze of thousands of alleyways behind the main streets and are an opportunity to see where and how locals live. Xian~~~~After Beijing I took a 90 minutes flight to Xian arriving at 8pm. As I was being driven to my hotel, I was amused by the interesting attempts at English language names for retail outlets such as the "Edible Supermarket" and the "Half Past 8 Friend Changing Club".Of course the purpose of this trip was to see the Terracotta Warriors and I was not disappointed. I was not sure about the oversized shed that had been built around the excavated areas, however this did not detract from the experience. As well as the rows upon rows of soldiers which we are all familiar with, there are areas where the soldiers are without heads and there are also terracotta horse and carriages. It was quite hard to get good photographs as the lighting is dim and flash not allowed. There is not much else to do in Xian. Yangtze River Cruise~~~~From Xian I took a long overnight train ride to Chengdu the starting point for a three night Yangtze River Cruise. The next few days were spent very lazily and peacefully admiring the scenery from the top of the boat. The gorge is incredibly deep and the scale deceiving on photos. I have photos of boats on the river that I know were the same size as my boat but you might think were really small three man crafts. In fact these boats easily had 150 passengers and rooms were the size of an average hotel room. The gorge was due to be partially flooded in 2008 and along the route there were various signs indicating where the water level would be afterwards. I remember estimating that it would be about a third of the way up the existing banks. I also specifically tried to visualise what the scenery would be like at this time and concluded that whilst a lot would disappear, it would still be striking and I can still recommend it. During the cruise, we stopped at a couple of places of interest along the way and at one point we all got off to board much smaller boats so we could sail through smaller tributary gorges which was a highlight for me.Shanghai~~~~I loved being in Shanghai, although it does not measure up to Beijing in terms of the places of historical and cultural interest. I spent a leisurely week here taking in the Bund (the main street along the waterfront), Nanjing Road (the main shopping street), Shanghai Museum and Yu Gardens. I particularly enjoyed strolling along the Bund in the evening, as on the opposite bank of the river the Oriental Pearl Tower would be illuminated and the light show was quite a spectacle. One day I went to the top of the tower, taking the short but mad train crossing under the river. Mad because it was pitch black but there was a psychedelic light show for the duration. I was in Shanghai on 1st October, which is National Day and a huge festival. I have noted in my journal that I holed myself up in my guesthouse for the actual day as the noise and mad atmosphere was overwhelming. It was nearly as mad during the day and evening before and after. In many ways it was impossible for me to penetrate or understand this excitement but I do remember for these three days, the Chinese would be wandering the streets in a state of great excitement and strangely most would be carrying large inflatable hammers. One evening, to the delight of the local population I decided to participate and bought myself a huge Little Kitty pink inflatable hammer which I carried everywhere for the next two days. I got more stares than normal at this time and one evening when I was on the Bund I came across a small group of European men who started a play fight with me with the hammers. Before long we must have had an audience of 200 Chinese around us. It was a memorable and fun evening and I still didn’t find a single person who spoke English.
My trip to China was over four years ago and pre-Olympic games, it was noticeable at the time that the government had already started initiatives to ready the nation for an influx of international visitors. For example there was a daily TV program to teach the English language.Nevertheless the language and cultural barriers were as large as I have ever faced. It was hard to get used to the Chinese habit of spitting, although this was one of those practices that the government had already started to discourage in anticipation of increased visitors in 2008, so no spitting signs were found in many places. I have noted in my journal that I did not see a single other westerner on my first day in China. It surprised me that I continued to see very few westerners as the days progressed as I have never thought China to be a particularly obscure holiday destination. I believe the explanation is simply that the tourists are spectacularly outnumbered by the Chinese population.I was stared at nearly everywhere I went, I have lost count of how many Chinese wanted to take a photograph of me or with me. My face must adorn many a mantlepiece across China. Most would ask (or gesture) for permission, but I remember once whilst sitting outside and taking a break that a small group were surreptitiously trying to capture me on camera. I had read this might happen in guidebooks, which spoke of this as if it were a problem. Indeed it may be for some people, but I only ever found it amusing and it did not annoy me at all. On the other hand I was annoyed on many occasions when I would be queuing to buy an entry ticket or underground ticket and a local would just step in front of me. However they are not meaning to be rude, a tap on the shoulder and an "I’m next" type of gesture would rectify the situation immediately. Well you know how the English feel about queuing.Finally, a few words about the cuisine. Well I thought it was pretty dreadful and woefully behind the standard in your average Chinese restaurant in the UK. A lot of the food was really greasy and unpleasant, I quickly learned to opt for vegetable based dishes and when I found somewhere bearable then I would repeat visit. Definitely not somewhere to experience gastronomic delights and wine is ghastly too.The phrase I have most often used to describe my trip to China in the subsequent four years is undoubtedly "hard work". I will probably continue to use this phrase for a long time to come. It is difficult for me to really say how much of this was due to me travelling independently and by myself for much of the time, but that is definitely part of it as I think the lack of even basic conversation for this length of time and the difficulties in communication just about everywhere was draining after three weeks. I hope I don’t sound like an insufferable English woman abroad, because I have travelled reasonably widely and don’t want to bring England with me when I go away and I don’t expect everybody in the world to speak English either, but China was like being on another planet at times. Looking back at my four month trip, I would say that China (excluding Hong Kong) was easily the most challenging country I visited, and I would even go so far as to say it was the least enjoyable country as well. Strangely though, I have come to realise that be that as it may, it was also the most memorable and thankfully, mainly for the good reasons.
by Cat19 on July 2, 2009
After my three weeks of independent and solo travel in mainland China I was really looking forward to Hong Kong. From the moment I arrived everything was so much easier and less stressful. Mainland China had been hard work and Hong Kong provided much needed respite.My journey was relatively easy, a quick flight from Shanghai and I was soon making my way through the airport terminal to the MTR train station. My hotel was in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong Island, I believe I got one train over to the island and then changed lines to go a few more stops to Wan Chai. It was a very easy system to negotiate and I was checked in and ready to start exploring in no time. I had about five days in Hong Kong and at the start I wondered how on earth I would pack everything in that I wanted to do, although in the event I was able to quite comfortably. On my first day, I started by taking the famous Peak Tram (a funicular railway) up to the top of Victoria Peak. There was quite a long queue when I arrived but it moved quickly and was well worth the wait. The tram ride up the extremely steep slope lasts eight minutes and was quite an experience, even more so going back down. The Peak is large enough for a long walk at the top and the views over the harbour were amazing, I bought some post cards at the top and enjoyed a coffee whilst I wrote them out. Whilst I decided to stay on Hong Kong Island, many holiday makers choose to be based in Kowloon across the strait. I went over on the underground train one evening and found it to be far more crowded than Hong Kong Island and perhaps more down market. I didn’t want to stay over here for a long time and I mainly went over to enjoy looking back at the Hong Kong skyline and to get some great photos. There is a light show every night as well, but you need to arrive quite early to get a good spot. I took the Star Ferry back which was another opportunity to enjoy the view of Hong Kong island.Another day I went to Lamma Island, there are ferries to either end of the island and I took the one to the quiet end as I heard there was an interesting walk across the island which would finish near the other busier ferry terminal. With hindsight I would recommend taking the ferry to and from the busy end of the island! The walk took hours, it was really hot, no shade, but the biggest issue I had, particularly as I was by myself, was that the route was not well signed at all and it was unnerving to see so few people along the way. Perhaps if I had not done this by myself I would have enjoyed it more. I was certainly happy to arrive at civilisation at the other end of the island and remember ordering some very large and tasty prawns in a restaurant overlooking the sea. Another island excursion was to Lantau Island, the main attraction here is the hill with big Buddha at the top.I had an enjoyable half day at Ocean Park, which is kind of an amusement park but not on the scale of say Alton Towers or indeed anything close. The park is on two levels and you take a cable car from one to another, it is quite a long cable car ride, very high and I was quite frightened at stages especially as I was the only person in my car. There are a couple of pandas in the park, which were nice to see although they don’t do much.On my final day I took the ferry to Macau (passport required). When I arrived I decided to take the bus rather than a taxi but I got on a bus going the wrong direction, as in away from the town centre and areas that might be of interest to a visitor. The bus driver did not speak English, he was very rude and aggressive and was not interested in trying to help me even with the assistance of my map and signage. Neither were any of the other passengers. A group of school boys grabbed my map and started passing it down the bus and started to laugh and point at me in a very horrid manner. To cut a long story short, eventually I managed to find my way into the central district. The town centre was a slight improvement on what I had seen so far of this miserable and ugly island, but the earlier experience put me off the whole place and I soon took a taxi back to the ferry port and went back to Hong Kong Island. I loathed Macau and will never step foot there again, not for all the tea in China.Besides these excursions I also enjoyed simply wandering the many shopping malls, both on Kowloon and especially on Hong Kong island. And one afternoon I decided to take the double decker tram and travel the length of HK island and back and just enjoy the sights.My days in Hong Kong up and it was back to the airport, next stop Vietnam.
It was a quick two hour flight from Hong Kong to my starting point in Vietnam of Hanoi. It is likely that most people would start a holiday in Vietnam in one of these two cities and work their way towards the other. Better still, some or all of the travelling between towns can be made on the Reunification Express train. Hanoi~~ I vividly remember my arrival in Hanoi, a stark contrast to ultra sleek Hong Kong airport. This was a different side of Asia. I took a taxi to my guesthouse and the journey was an experience in itself. Lunatic driving, constant horn honking and what seemed like thousands of mopeds. It was common to see three of four people on one moped and I shall never forget seeing one moped rider with five piglets piled on top of one another behind him. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and "greater Hanoi" has a population of around three million. It is divided into four administrative sectors, the most densely populated being the Hoan Kiem sector, which is the area in which most visitors are likely to be staying. In the middle of this district is a large lake by the same name and I spent my first evening taking a leisurely stroll around the circumference which helped me to orientate. At one end of the lake you can cross the romantically named "Bridge of the Rising Sun" to visit the Ngoc Son Pagoda situated on the lakes small island. I spent five or six days in Hanoi and found plenty to do at a leisurely pace. Exploring the small alleyways of the so called old town was fun, although I recommend bringing a map unless you have an exceptionally good sense of direction. You will see plenty of interesting shops and also it seemed an insight into life for a local resident as the shops are also their homes. Another morning I wandered around the French quarter. One goes here primarily to admire the architecture, such as of the Opera House, and the wide tree-lined boulevards, a marked contrast to the rest of the streets in Hanoi which are generally not of the standard seen in our western cities. There are several museums to choose from in Hanoi if you are after a spot of culture or history. I opted to visit the Ho Chi Minh museum which I combined with a visit to Ho Chi Minh's House on Stilts and also the Hoa Lo Prison museum which was first used by the occupying French and later the Vietnamese during the American War (as that war is called in Vietnam). Both were interesting and well planned and laid out. The house on stilts is quite small itself but is set in attractive gardens that you can enjoy a stroll around. For evening entertainment the water puppet shows (puppeteers are submerged in water) are very popular with tourists. Whilst some might think they are tacky, I thought it was a bit different and enjoyed it, the show only lasts an hour anyway. Finally Hanoi is typically the starting point for some adventures further afield, of which Halong Bay and Sapa are the two most popular. I did not make it to Sapa, but this is a hill tribe region popular for hiking, if I went back to Vietnam then I would want to go here. I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days cruising around Halong Bay though, stopping for the occasional swim and it was blissful. The bay is a UNESCO world heritage site, the water is turquoise and there are thousands of very interestingly shaped limestone rocks and islands to sail around. There is local traffic on the water and the locals are extremely friendly and all seemed genuinely delighted to see us. Hue~~ Next stop heading south was Hue. This is a town full of historical interest and I made visits to the Imperial Citadel, to Vietnam's own Forbidden City, where once only the Emperor and his concubines were allowed and finally to the very grand Tu Duc mausoleum. Hoi An~~ Hoi An is a few hours from Hue and was the original trading port in Vietnam. Nowadays it is still famous for its shops and markets and this is where people may have clothes made. It is not all about suits either, I had a couple of pairs of casual walking trousers copied and I also ordered a traditional Vietnamese outfit comprising of a long tunic / dress thing worn with a pair of flared silk trousers. They were also able to make up a pair of strappy shoes in the same material (but reinforced of course) as the tunic. If you do think you will want anything made, then you need a couple of days in the town and should order your clothes shortly after arrival, they won't do it in a day. Nha Trang~~ I was sorry to have only a day and a half in Nha Trang and would have liked to have spent another lazy day or two here. There is nothing memorable about the town, rather this is a place to enjoy the beach. There were numerous trendy bars and eateries along the length of the sea front, most people seemed to be in their 20's or 30's and as far as I could make out this was a stop off for backpackers. As I was travelling for four months, I was happy to spend a couple of lazy days by the sea here. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)~~ Saigon is a larger city than Hanoi in terms of both population and geographical size. It is also far more westernised and modern. At the time, I was glad to get to Saigon and perhaps I confused this with actually preferring it as a location. I realise that because it is a bit more modern, it was somewhere for me to re-charge my batteries and also stock up on essentials required for my remaining three months of travel. Looking back, I think less-developed Hanoi is the more interesting and varied city and the one I would return to if I could only go to one. I spent a day or so exploring the city centre and shopping in Saigon and one of the best war museums in the country is here. I would recommend a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a couple of hours outside Saigon and easily do-able as a day trip. The tunnels where used by the Vietnamese as living quarters, to hide in and as escape routes during the Vietnam War. There is an interesting guided tour around the site and the opportunity to crawl through small sections of the tunnels which have been specially widened for tourists but are still a bit of a tight fit. My husband later told me that he didn't make this day trip when he was in Saigon because he gets claustrophobic. Don't worry about that, there is absolutely no need to enter the tunnels to enjoy the visit. Another highly recommended excursion from Saigon is to the Mekong Delta. This involves a boat ride along the river banks with various stops off to visit small villages and watch crafts people at work in their cottage industries. We visited one where they were making rice paper. The villagers were delighted by our visit and were incredibly friendly despite the language barriers. From the oldest to the youngest, they delighted in having their photograph taken. It is also common to organise a one night stay at a homestead farm, I did this and whilst there isn't a lot to do other than enjoy the food and company, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Overall Opinion~~ Vietnam proved to be the country that I enjoyed the most during my four months of travels. The reason was the people, the friendliness I encountered everywhere, their spirit, pride and the sense I had of them trying to improve their country and their lives. I visited several places connected to the Vietnam War and felt that they were balanced and they do not appear to bear any grudges. That said, it should be noted that the population has almost doubled since that time (about 85 million today) and accordingly it is a very young nation, a third being under the age of 15 for instance. I had over three weeks in Vietnam, if I had less time and needed to cut something out, I would probably chose to visit only one or two of Hue, Hoi An or Nha Trang but not all three. Hanoi probably offered the most to do in and around and so would concentrate my visit here, I wouldn't miss Halong Bay and I heard great things about Sapa as well. I don't think as much time is required in Saigon, but I do recommend being in the south long enough to visit the Mekong Delta and possibly stay overnight.
I had travelled south through Vietnam, which meant it was a very quick (40 minute) flight from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Once in the country, getting around is quite an adventure but not necessarily in a good way. Trains are infrequent and not reliable and the roads are in very poor condition. I found there was not a bus service between two regions I wanted to visit meaning a shared taxi or minivan was the only way to get to the second location. But shared taxi drivers will try to cram six adults in one average saloon type car which I can only imagine to be very unpleasant for a six hour journey on potholed roads. Minivans have the same over-crowding issue. Transportation problems might be overcome by joining an organised tour, but I didn't want to do this. So partly due to the challenges of transportation, I only visited three places in Cambodia; Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. It was necessary to come back to Phnom Penh in between as there was no way of getting from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap or vice versa at that time. The other place I had wanted to visit was Kampot, but this would have meant yet another trip back to Phnom Penh which was totally the wrong direction. I believe it is more accessible by bus from other locations now though. Phnom Penh~~ I found Phnom Penh to be a fairly compact city and I was able to walk to more or less everywhere that I wanted to visit. The heart of the city runs along the banks of the Tonle Sap river and the immediate riverbank area is picturesque. I opted to stay in one of the many guesthouses situated along the riverbank, paying about $15 per night and I took most of my meals in one of the many lovely cafés and restaurants along here as well. The most famous of these is the Foreign Correspondence Club, which I can recommend very highly for the views, the atmosphere, the décor and the food is not too bad either. The FCC also has a few rooms available and I think this would be a fabulous place to stay, although as I was on a budget I sadly could not stretch to the $60 per night cost on this trip. Nearby attraction include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, both of which worth a visit. A slightly longer walk would take you to Wat Phnom, another temple and around it a small but thriving cluster of market stalls. Not long before my trip I had watched the film "The Killing Fields" and I wanted to know more about these terrible times. One day I visited the Toul Sleng museum, which had been a school before being taken over and used as a prison and interrogation centre by young Khmer Rouge soldiers. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people were imprisoned here over a four year period but only twelve are known to have survived. Most were dead within a few months. Every prisoner was photographed passport style when they entered and many of these photographs are now on display. I was shocked at how young some of the prisoners were, there were even babies and children. The school / prison has been preserved in more or less the state it was found after the regime fell. Most people will guide themselves around. I found it horrifying but not in a gratuitous way. My guidebook had prepared me for even more gruesome displays than I saw and the worst horrors are left to the imagination. Ten miles outside Phnom Penh is Choeng Ek also known as the Killing Fields. I took a taxi for my visit here. The fields are not big and after paying a small admittance fee most people wander around by themselves. I decided to hire a guide to show me around. I didn't understand him very well, but enough to know that his family were killed here during Pol Pot's regime and he was understandably still very angry and he wanted to show people what had happened. He walked around the fields with me and pointed out pieces of bone, teeth and clothing that still lay on the ground. In the middle of the site is a glass tower which has been filled with many of the skulls that have been recovered from the site. I did not want to take a photograph of this particular monument, however my guide wanted me to. Apparently nobody survived this prison, other than seven people who were found inside when the regime was overthrown. Sihanoukville~~ After a few days in Phnom Penh, I made the four hour bus journey to Sihanoukville. The buses are always described as "luxury". They are not. They would probably not be allowed on the road in the UK so be prepared. The drive will be broken up by one or two comfort stops along the way. There will probably be a very loud TV or even worse karaoke machine blaring for the duration of your trip and you may find yourself sharing your seat with a chicken. I spent about five or six days here in Cambodia's premier beach resort, it is pleasant but does not remotely match up to the beaches of Thailand. When I was there it was still relatively quiet and undiscovered and I found that most of my fellow visitors were backpackers, with plenty of time on their hands, but there were not many "normal" holidaymakers. There are various different bars along the long beach providing the sun loungers and refreshments during the day. I had a couple of favourites that I went to most often. As it was not a very busy place, it was normal to see the same faces and there was quite a nice atmosphere. There was also a rather large crown of local teenagers who seemed to spend their days going to the beach talking to westerners and I spent many an hour chatting to small groups of them. There are a few day trips to take from here and these can be organised via several of the guesthouses. A day's boat trip was popular and there was also a trip to Ream National Park, which I did. It was a nice enough outing and included a boat ride and a picnic, but nothing to write home about. At the end of my visit, I had to take the bus back to Phnom Penh and planned to spend another full day there before flying to Siem Reap. When I arrived at the bus stop, a rather aggressive looking chap from Nottingham related to me the story of his troubles that morning with one of those taxi drivers who had wanted to cram a ridiculous number of adults into his taxi before setting off for Kampot. In the end the chap from Nottingham, decided he had had enough, got out of the taxi and decided to take the bus back to Phnom Penh instead. During the course of the next four hours and after he had calmed down a little, we discovered that Siem Reap was the next stop for us both and we decided that we would pool costs and explore the site together. Overall Opinion~~ Cambodia has a troubled recent past from which I believe it is still struggling to recover from. Certainly to me they did not seem to have made the progress that their Vietnamese neighbours have after their own troubled past. Unfortunately this manifests as prolific and sometimes aggressive begging, which some may find quite disturbing. This was most apparent in Phnom Penh and I hated the all too common sight of children of about age 10 or less wandering the streets carrying their baby siblings. It was clear to me that these children were not truly fending for themselves, they were too well fed and healthy looking, but rather had been put to work in this way by parents or other adults. Social problems aside and whilst I did enjoy this part of my travels thoroughly, I still don't think I could say that Cambodia was one of my favourite destinations. This is partly because I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the country but logistically I found this quite challenging. I would highly recommend a trip to Phnom Penh however and can see myself going back one day. I would hesitate to recommend Sihanoukville to anyone other than a backpacker or someone with a lot of time to spend in Cambodia.
I generally found Cambodia a challenge to travel around due to poor transport links, but one places that is served well is Siem Reap and I chose to fly here from Phnom Penh. I used Siem Reap Airlines, I found their planes to be modern and the service good. The airport at Siem Reap is excellent for its size. There are several flights a day between the two locations, flight time is 50 minutes and the cost about US$50 one way. The true backpackers would of course choose to save a few pounds and spend six hours on an uncomfortable bus instead.. A couple of days earlier, I met a fellow Brit at a bus stop in Sihanoukville. We were both planning to visit the temples of Angkor next and decided to share the experience and the cost of a tuk tuk. Whilst I was flying to Siem Reap, my new friend decided to take the bus so he set off the day before me. I arrived in the town at around midday and met up with my friend in the lovely Red Piano bar restaurant and we worked out a sight-seeing plan. Most people would probably recognise the image of Ankor Wat, but there are hundreds more temples in the area, built over a period of 600 years by the Khmer empire. Tourist maps of the area are readily available so with that and a guidebook, it was fairly easy to come up with a plan of what we should see and in what order based on location. Itinerary done and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Siem Reap. I thought it was a very attractive small town with a good range of shops and places to eat and drink. At about 5pm, we decided to go and buy a three day pass (US$60) to the Angkor site. Entry for the evening before is included as a bonus, so we went to the Angkor Wat site to watch the sunset. We took a tuk tuk down to the gates to buy the ticket and we arranged for the driver, Mr Peach, to be our guide for our second and third days. His fee was US$8 a day and we saw no reason to haggle over this. On the first of three days, we decided to go and see the temples situated further afield, some a good 20 miles from the town and a bit too far to go in a tuk tuk. Instead we hired a car and chauffeur for the day costing US$30. We explored the temples to the east of the site including Banteay Srei and East Mebon which were my two favourites of the five we visited in the morning. In the afternoon, we started to head back to the more central area and managed to fit in another five visits. Of these Ta Keo and Ta Phrom were my favourites. Ta Keo was a quiet site and the pyramids were incredibly steep. We started to climb up one side but then turned back because it was so steep and tackled it from another side instead. When we did get to the top and look down, it was so steep you could not even see the steps, it looked vertical. Climbing back down was pretty scary as it is so steep and there is nothing to hold on to. I had to offer to go first and my offer was accepted! Ta Phrom is an amazing site and was probably my favourite of all the temples. This is quite a large complex and a decision was made not to restore it so it has been left exactly as it was found, that is being totally over run by trees. The roots and trunks of the trees have grown over the temples and almost become one. The size of the trees is an indication of for just how long the temples had been here forgotten. This is one of the more well known sites and accordingly it was busier than some of the others. But there are many temples to see and they are sufficiently spread out for there to be no real problems with crowds. We went to see Angkor Wat on our second day, this is the largest and best preserved of any of the temples. It is the one most commonly used in photographs and of course one of the most popular. I too thought it was fantastic, it was great to be able to climb to the highest levels and this time there were hand rails to assist with coming back down again. It is a must see, but definitely not my favourite. On our final day we went to see the oldest temples, known as the Roulous temples and dating back to 890. These are smaller and made of red brick as opposed to the grey and brown stone used elsewhere. I am extremely glad we had three full days and four nights in Siem Reap. So many people and most of the organised excursions that I have seen, only provide two full days and three nights. I don't think it is enough and if you are going to go all the way to Cambodia, this will surely be the highlight so don't rush it. The experience was truly remarkable and its position as Cambodia's top attraction is well deserved and unsurprising. It has to be up there as one of the best travel experiences in my life so far. I even ended up getting married to that chap from Nottingham that I met at a Cambodian bus stop and who shared this experience with me..
I first heard of the Banyan Tree when a fellow traveller in Vietnam told me that dinner in the roof top restaurant of the Banyan Tree would be the perfect way to end my trip before returning home to London. I was determined to do this and the following month I met another traveller in Cambodia who travelled on to Bangkok with me and agree to accompany me to this magnificent restaurant on the final night of my trip.It was a perfect evening and ending to my trip, I was only sorry that my budget on this particular trip did not permit me to actually stay here. In 2005, I was back in Thailand for Christmas and New Year and with that same traveller that I met in Cambodia, who was now my fiancé. This time I had the pleasure of spending four nights in the Banyan Tree including New Years Eve. I made my booking directly with the hotel by email and they were very courteous and prompt with their replies. I was offered a nightly rate of US$225 including New Years Eve and this was for a "club room". In fact every room in the hotel is a suite. Our suite had large bathroom with oversize bath and separate oversize shower, medium sized bedroom and a large lounge with two sofas, coffee table, TV media cabinet as well as an office area. Every night there was a different gift left for us on our pillows, including a cuddly tortoise that I am particularly taken with and another night we received carved wooden bookmarks. The club rooms are all on one of the higher floors and the additional benefits included early check in / late check out (very useful as most flights back to the UK are at about midnight), use of the club lounge which provided free internet access and unlimited complementary snacks, soft and alcoholic drinks all day and inclusive breakfast served on the outside terrace of one of the restaurants which was a hot and cold buffet of a very high standard. I thought it was worth the additional cost which was about $35 per night for the room. The hotel is conveniently placed a short walk from both a Skytrain station and the MRT (underground) station, which are easy to negotiate, pleasant to travel on and cover most of central Bangkok. It is not in the heart of the main shopping areas but I did not see this as a problem due to the transport links and rather I preferred it to be not so bustling as it can be in the shopping districts. In the evenings, as we have been to Bangkok several times before, we were more interested in trying out the various restaurants in the hotel itself rather than venturing outside, although there is a rather good Irish bar en route from station to hotel that we made a re-fueling stop at once or twice. The highlight of any stay in this hotel has to be dinner at Vertigo, which is open air and the highest restaurant in Bangkok. We were here for a spectacular, black tie, eleven course, New Years Eve black tie dinner, an experience that will never be forgotten. One disappointment for me was the hotel spa. The spa is extremely well-appointed and luxurious, however I found it very difficult to get an appointment and this was despite the supposed priority booking for club room guests. I went to make an appointment on my first day at the hotel but was told they were completely booked up for the rest of my stay, so this presumably means it is wise to book treatments in advance. The day I arrived at the hotel I was suffering from an ear infection and being concerned about the flight home I contacted reception to see if they could recommend a doctor. Within 15 minutes, the hotel nurse and assistant manager came up to see me and after examining me and deciding that I should see a doctor, they then provided a limousine to take me to the local hospital (which was itself outstanding). When I returned to the hotel an hour later, I found a get well card and an extremely large box of chocolates which I thought was a very nice touch and I think is indicative of the attention to detail and client care that the hotel provides. Of course there are far cheaper, good quality hotels to stay at in Bangkok. But this was a suite and a high quality one which I think is good value compared to an equivalent suite in one of the major "western" hotel chains. So for a short trip, a treat or a special occasion I would highly recommend the Banyan Tree. If I return to Bangkok again, I will undoubtedly be returning to this hotel.
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