Wow. Hard to believe we are at the two month mark, our two month “travelversary” so to speak. Our trip surely feels like it’s happening fast. (Didn’t I just write my one month blog?!)
This month was so different from our first. Japan was such an easy place for us. Certainly costs were high and that felt hard, but knowing the language and having many friends made it feel more like “home” than travel. Since we left Japan, we spent a couple days in Bangkok, a week in Cambodia, a week relaxing on the southern n beaches of Vietnam, and then this past week, we have been touring about seeing some of Vietnam’s highlights.
I must admit, our few days in Bangkok was hard and tiring to me The blast of extreme heat and humidity, combined with all the touts, pollution and not understanding the language was a bit of culture shock. Perhaps we had read too many warnings about taxi drivers trying to scam tourists or why we should beware of our belongs at all times, or perhaps it was the rush of amazing colors, sights, sounds and smells that make Bangkok the wonderful city that it is. But I was overwhelmed by it all. We found many moments to enjoy, but for some reason, I felt like I always had one eye looking over my shoulder.
From Bangkok, we flew to Cambodia, and unlike our arrival in Bangkok which felt flustering, the airport in Siem Reap was beautiful, getting a visa on arrival was fast and easy, and we immediately met a driver that made us feel comfortable. Our hotel was booked before we arrived and, after 6 weeks without a pool, the kids were pleased to cool off in the large pool.
We started to relax and spent an amazing week in Siem Reap taking in all it had to offer. For only having six nights there, we covered a lot of ground. We took in the floating village by boat and spent four days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. As you know, Siem Reap is home to Angkor Temple, the largest religious complex in the world. Until you have been there, you cannot begin to know how enormous the complex is. The complex is hundreds of square miles and home to more than 100 temples, all with its own individual history and character. We took in as many as we could see. A few of the highlights:
Beng Melea – Our first of the temples and perhaps the family’s favorite, this temple is actually not part of the Angkor Temple complex. For this reason, you can explore EVERYWHERE. Imagine, if you will, a cross between Indian Jones and Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider, add in ancient ruins, and energetic boys…. Yep, perfect! If you are familiar with the Japanese film maker Miyazaki’s movies, we heard Japan’s Lonely Planet books compare this temple to Laputa –the Castle in the Sky, one of our family’s favorites. It was delightfully fun for all us to climb in and through ruins, swing from banyan tree vines, scurry over old temple walls carved with old inscriptions.
Angkor Wat – The namesake of the temple region, Ankor is the biggest and certainly impressive. Many people wake early to get there for the sunrise at 5:30am as the photos taken of the temple with sun rising behind it is stunning (or so I hear.) I never made it that early but we did spend a good part of a day exploring the ruins, and climbing the many steps up to the center pavilion. Beautiful!
East Mebon – Beautiful multi story complex with huge stone elephants guarding the corners on each level.
Ta Prohm – A large temple complex with lots of hidden corners and enormous trees growing up intertwined within the ruins. Exotic and fun!
Bayon – The king who had this temple built apparently thought very highly of himself. He had hundreds of his own faces build on towers throughout the complex. There is a lot to explore here.
Again, until you’ve been here you can’t begin to understand how large the complex is. There are hundreds of temples still surviving here and each temple is hours of exploration, climbing, and photo-taking. Each temple has its own complicated story, culture, and religious history. I highly recommend Angkor Wat. Personally, I was so excited to visit the Angkor complex that I was a little afraid that I would be disappointed. I was not. It was gorgeous and interesting every step of the way.
Cambodia was lovely and the people were friendly. Smaller than the size of Washington State and the second poorest country in SE Asia, the people work hard. Many young kids work the temples selling trinkets to earn money for their family. And, while we certainly had shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers trying to catch our attention at every step, we started to get comfortable with the fact they are just looking for work. They too have families to support and they are doing just that by offering you a ride in their rickshaw. Shopkeepers too. You can’t begrudge them a sale, although we certainly didn’t bring it home for them. After two months, we continue to spend our money on experiences and new food adventures and have added extremely little to our backpacks.
From Cambodia, we headed to Vietnam. There was a little confusion at the airport because our visas were dated later than we had arrived. The embassy in the U.S. had said we could estimate our arrival in Vietnam which we did, but when we arrived two days early, there was some concern that we’d be turned away. In the end with a little sweet talking, it all worked out OK and we were allowed in.
Upon arrival, the plan was to meet up with a driver that would drive us the five hours from Ho Chi Minh City to the beach town of Mui Ne. Nathan had reached out to a little surf shop in Mui Ne and inquired about transportation to Mui Ne. They’d offered to book us a room for the first night and arranged a car and driver. So, sight unseen, we’d wired money to the Australian who runs the surf shop. It wasn’t expensive but we weren’t sure. Would it work?, we both secretly wondered as we arrived. Phew! I don’t think we have ever been so excited to see our name on a piece of paper held up at the airport exit. It went seamlessly.
While it still is a developing country, Vietnam has a bit more infrastructure. The first thing I noticed as we were leaving Ho Chi Minh City is all the scooters. I also noticed that, unlike Cambodia where only about 5 % of the riders wear helmets, in Vietnam almost all of them do. That was refreshing although the laws in both countries seem to be that the driver will be fined if they are not wearing helmets. That means that everywhere you go, the parents are wearing helmets and the two or three kids on the motor scooter with are not. (Sigh… I try not to judge.)
Another story about the harrowing driving in SE Asia: We met a Cambodia tour guide who says he is often asked which side of the road Cambodians drive on. Americans drive on the right. British and Australians drive on the left. In Cambodia, he says, they just drive where there is room. Yep, that sounds about right to me.
After our first six weeks of travel, we were happy to chill out on the beach in Mui Ne for a week. We splurged on a nice hotel with a beautiful pool right on the ocean and thoroughly enjoyed our much needed relaxation. From Mui Ne, we took our first overnight train up to the central Vietnamese coastal town of HoiAn, a beautiful riverside town with lots of Chinese and Japanese architectural influences. We found an amazing guesthouse run by a three generation Vietnamese family who were completely lovely. Delicious breakfasts were served right in their kitchen on the main level and they worked hard to make sure we were comfortable and well taken care of. In HoiAn, we rode rickshaws around the town, took an amazing fishing boat tour, and even a Vietnamese cooking class which were all fun and interesting.
Leaving HoiAn, we rode a scenic train along the coastline to Hue, an old capital of Vietnam with a rich history. We saw the old citadel and the amazing tomb of Tu Duc. (The old ruler built his own tomb himself on a massive estate which he enjoyed first as a weekend retreat before his death.) We just left Hue yesterday on an overnight train up to Halong Bay which we have all been looking forward to seeing for a long time. Believe me, we are taking plenty of photos along the way, but Halong Bay is supposed to be one of the most scenic spots in Vietnam. We are staying on the southern end of Halong Bay and hear that there might be kayaks to rent for sightseeing along the bay. I can’t wait.
Both Cambodians and Vietnamese seem to LOVE children. My six year old is often the victim of friendly cheek rubs and even kisses from the warm natives, and both boys hear how handsome they are many times throughout the day. Everywhere we go, from train stations to roadside shops, people engage the boys with friendly high fives and cheek rubs, asking their names and ages. It is interesting how the common bond of parenting can cause an exchange and a smile with the local people. Traveling with children is truly a different experience.
So, as we reach our two month mark, life has gotten more routine. We are all used to brushing our teeth with bottled water and bargaining for everything we buy. We have learned to go directly to train stations to buy tickets to save money (Online train purchasing? Ha!) and to do our research on prices before arrival in a city. We have even learned to avoid the cars, scooters, fruit vendors, large tourist buses, rickshaws and bicycles when crossing the street.
And, I have even heard from the boys “When I get back home, I won’t take anything for granted!” Truly, I don’t think any of us will.