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Published: February 1st 2014
Ho Chi Minh City
There couldn't be a greater contrast between slick and orderly Singapore and Ho Chi Minh city, where chaos reigns in all areas, and definitely the most hectic buzzing city we have been to so far. Nevertheless we were pleased to be back in the 'real' South East Asia again and spent many a half hour on street corners just admiring the traffic chaos and the lack of crashes or squashed pedestrians. But a couple of days of fumes were enough to bear and we moved on as soon as we could. Cat Tien National Park
The 50km journey north east to Cat Tien National Park was an arduous 5 hour journey through endless suburbs and never ending traffic jams. But after a short ferry ride across the Dong Nai river delimiting the Park the drone of traffic and hooters suddenly disappeared and we were once again surrounded by fantastic lowland rainforest. A UNESCO biosphere reserve, Cat Tien was created in 2001 to protect the habitat of a whole host of recorded fauna, including elephants, leopard, rhinoceros and gibbons, as well as an abundant bird life. Not
surprisingly, given the enormous size of the reserve (72,000 hectares) the only fauna that we saw were langur monkeys and a distant glimpse of gibbons, as well as some special birds such as the green pea fowl and pitta, but we were 'leeched' many times. And not to forget the largest spider I have ever seen (at least 30 cm across!) which greeted us in our lodge room, that even the staff were afraid of.
Not recommended is a visit to the gibbon and bear rescue centre within the reserve, a rehabilitation centre for animals that have been confiscated as pets or from traffickers. The eventual goal of the centre is to release the animals back into the wild, but it was clear that no releases have been made for a while, from the number of animals housed there in appalling conditions. However the volunteer staff there appeared to be genuinely concerned in looking after the animals and we did hear that the charity Free the Bears have just taken over the management of the centre, so hopefully the future may be brighter for all these animals. The Mekong Delta
From Cat Tien we rather optimistically planned to travel by car all the way south past Ho Chi Minh City, as far as Can Tho on the Mekong Delta, in one day. Little did we realise that the single main road to the delta region runs straight through the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. It was another tortuous, slow journey, a record total of 9 hours driving.
We stopped in Can Tho for a couple of days to visit the famous floating markets, treating ourselves to a stay in the grandest hotel in town, the Victoria Can Tho Resort. A French colonial style building, filled with French and American package tourists, we felt quite out of place as we were given a complementary shoulder massage in reception on our arrival. Eve was treated too to a souvenir and biscuits.Our floating market experience was interesting but not as impressive as expected. We chose to avoid the most popular spot for tourists, in favour of the more distant Phong Dien market which is a wholesale market. but still we were disappointed that the
number of long tail boats with cameras outnumbered the market boats. Nevertheless it was a colourful sight, to see boats piled high with wares of all sorts from pineapples to pumpkins, with the product for sale advertised by being hung high on a bamboo pole at the back of the boat. From the market we jumped on dry land and cycled back towards Can Tho through villages lining the river, competing with bikes and motorcycles on roads no larger than footpaths.
Chau Doc was our departure point for the 5 hour speedboat journey up the Mekong river towards Cambodia. It was one of our easiest border crossings as we had nothing more to do than jump off the boat twice to have our passports stamped for exit out of Vietnam and entry into Cambodia. Phnom Penh
It felt strange to be entering the capital city of Phnom Penh by boat and we were amazed how small the city is: within minutes of disembarking the boat we were in a tuktuk and only a further few minutes in our hotel in the outskirts of the city. Phnom Penh was easy to explore, by tuk tuk and
on foot, it felt quiet and unhurried, and with a happy mix of temples and local life on the one hand and some great boutique shops and cafés on the other. We could happily have spent more time here and less time in the tourist trap that is Siem Reap (see below). Frustratingly we wasted a day at the Chinese Embassy trying to persuade an officious official that we weren't going to do the country any harm by visiting in February. We had to dash to and fro from a printers' shop near the Embassy to print out all sorts of irrelevant evidence such as flights out of Vietnam. Eventually the official could find no other reason to detain us but refused to grant us the express visa that we sought. We had to move on to Siem Reap without our passports and paying for an agent to collect and deliver them to us in Siem Reap. Siem Reap
In contrast to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap is a sprawling, dusty, crowded city, the centre of which has been completely taken over by tourist services; it even has its own 'Pub Street' lined with pizza restaurants, souvenir
shops, and spas with fish tanks to clean your feet for only $1. We avoided the fish tanks but ashamed to admit that we had a lot of fun here, bargaining over 50p for cheap silks and jewellery in the market and having cheap daily massages (testing Eve's patience).
But of course the real reason for coming to Siem Reap is to visit the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, and although here also history has been swamped by tourists and all things tourism, it is nevertheless an impressive sight not to be missed. soon appreciated that Angkor Wat itself is only one of hundreds of temples in this ancient city of the Khmer Empire, which in its day supported a population of one million, with houses, monasteries and public buildings all in wood and long disappeared. During the 3 days that we spent in a tuk-tuk exploring the area, we found some smaller but quieter and equally fascinating temples. Eve loved getting lost in the labyrinth of passages and tree roots of Preah Khan, but for me the 216 enormous carved faces of Avalokiteshvara in the temple of Bayon, were simply amazing. Many of the outlying temples are literally falling
to pieces, with piles of blocks and carvings scattered around like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled. Yet the larger temples that have been restored and cleared from the jungle's grasp seem somehow to have lost their unique atmosphere and grandeur, as new concrete blocks are interspersed with originals and the atmospheric tree roots cut back. No wonder the on going debate between restoration of the temples and maintaining their unique atmosphere, and whether a balance can be found.
As for Angkor Wat itself, this was one of the temples that we found too sanitized and of course swamped with tourists. It is nevertheless breathtaking simply for its size and for the intricacy of its reliefs and carvings, but we found it hard to fully appreciate Angkor Wat with more time spent dodging cameras and following the one way signs.
Next stop, back to Myanmar, the south this time. All really excited to be returning to this fascinating country, hoping it hasn't changed too much in 7 months...
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