Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Impressions

Five hours by bus south-west of Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s only deep water port, Sihanoukville. The port was used by the US during the American War with Vietnam. When the US evacuated the region the Khmer Rouge attacked, seizing a US container ship. This led a two-day rescue operation by marines including airstrikes across the city.

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Sihanoukville is becoming more popular among tourists because of its long golden sandy beaches and peaceful untouched islands. It’s lack of infrastructure is the only reason it has yet to become like the southern Thailand islands, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. But it’s only a matter of time.

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Beyond hanging at the beach and cruising the islands, there’s little to do in the area. This didn’t stop me hiring a scooter and heading out to see what I could find.

Wat Leu
One of five main temples in and around Sihanoukville.

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Wat Leu is also called the Upper Wat as it stands on a hill providing great views along the bay.

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Kbal Chhay Waterfall
This small waterfall is 7km from Sihanoukville and the main source of fresh clean water for the city.

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The falls became a hiding place for the Khmer Rouge in 1963 effectively cutting off the water supply.

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Island Tour
With little else left on land to do here but sit at the beach, I booked myself on a boat and was out on the beach waiting for it in the warm early morning air.

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During the tour, we visited three different islands, swam, stopped for a bbq lunch on the beach and snorkelled. As the water was mostly murky, it wasn’t the best for snorkelling but I enjoyed the time anyway.

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On our return, I hung out at a $5 bbq restaurant on the beach watching the sun set.

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Overall, Sihanoukville is a lovely, serene and peaceful place to stay for a couple of days if you like basking in the sun. The location where I was staying was a distance out of town and was particularly relaxed and quiet.

Next, Siem Reap and the much-lauded Angkor Wat.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Impressions

Once known as the Pearl of Asia, Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s largest city and capital. While it may once have been the loveliest French built city in Indochina, it’s now one of the dirtiest cities I’ve been to in South East Asia.

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By 1975 the city had a population of between 2 and 3 million, including many refugees from Vietnam. A year later, the city was shelled relentlessly by the Khmer Rouge, killing and mutilating millions. The extremist communist regime then evacuated the city leaving it a virtual ghost town, claiming cities were havens of evil.

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Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields
The Khmer Rouge, led by paranoid leader Pol Pot, accused Cambodians of petty crimes, tortured them until they admitted to spying then shipping them to one of 320 execution camps.

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Over the course of 4 years the regime murdered nearly 3 million people in this manner before being run out by the Vietnamese army. Fifteen kilometres from Phnom Penh is the township of Choeung Ek. It is the location of the most famous of the murder camps, now simply called the Killing Fields. The site has 129 mass graves where over 20,000 people were executed.

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A buddhist memorial has now been built as a way to show respect to the victims. There is also an audio tour which takes about 2 hours. I’ve never seem such sad faces as I moved around the site.

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Because ammunition was expensive, executions were committed with hand weapons while music was played to mask the deaths. There’s even a tree against which children were smashed before being thrown into a pit. This was to stop them growing up and taking revenge on the Khmer Rouge.

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Overall, the experience was very sobering.

Tuoi Slang Genocide Museum
During the 4 year Khmer Rouge regime, schools, temples and other institutions were considered evil and abandoned. One abandoned school in Phnom Penh was converted to a prison and torture facility.

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It’s now a museum and many of the rooms have their original metal beds and photos depicting prisoners in various states of torture.

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Wat Phnom
The highest religious structure in the city. Legend tells of a woman named Penh who found four buddha statues in a tree and built a shrine on this hill to protect them, thus founding the city. Phnom mean Hill and Phnom Penh literally means Penh’s Hill.

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The Royal Palace
A popular tourist site, the palace has a view out across the river. The sections where the King lives is closed to the public.

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Wat Preah Keo
Also known as the Silver Pagoda, it is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace. Its formal name, Preach Vihear Keo Morakot, means Temple of the Emerald-Crystal Buddha. It houses the Cambodian Emerald Buddha statue as well as a life-sized gold statue decorated with 9584 diamonds.

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Independence Monument
The monument is a stupa dedicated to Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It’s also printed on the 100 Riel bill, a note worth about 2.5 US cents.

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Next, I head to the beach for a few days of sun and sand.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Impressions

In 1976, to mark the reunification of North and South following the American War, the city known as Saigon officially became Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon is still used in the south although if used by locals it can suggest their political leanings.

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With 9 million people Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. While it’s half again as large as Hanoi, the roads system in Ho Chi Minh City is far superior.

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At the end of my 23 day scooter trip from the capital, I chose to stay 4 nights in Ho Chi Minh City in hope of selling my scooter, exploring the city and to take a rest.

Pagodas

Compared to many places in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is packed with pagodas in its central city.

Giam Lam Pagoda
One of the oldest pagodas in the city.

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Giac Pagoda
Simply called the Great Ancient Large Buddhist Temple, although it’s dwarfed by the skyscrapers on all sides.

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Minh Dang Quang Pagoda
A cluster of pagodas with more under construction just outside of the central city.

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Notre-Dame Cathedral
In turn, unlike many places in Vietnam, the city has few churches. This one was built in 1863 in the french style similar to the Basilica of Notre-Dame. The statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the cathedral was said to have shed a tear in 2005 attracting crowds of thousands. Whether it actually did is yet to be proven.

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City Hall
Built in 1902 the city hall began as a hotel, but in 1976 it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee head office.

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Suoi Tien Amusement Park

On the north side of the city is a large amusement park designed to illustrate Vietnam’s past. The park includes a large manmade beach and a massive waterfall sculpted in the likeness of one of the former emperors. The face is large enough that it can be seen from the highway going past.

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War Remnants Museum

Unlike the war museum in Hanoi, the War Remnants Museum showcases some of the atrocities inflicted upon the Vietnamese people during the American War. While the museum is illuminating and a tad macabre, it comes across as anti-American and full of communist propaganda.

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Vietnamese New Years

The roads of District 1 in the central city get quite busy as darkness descends. Nighttime denotes dinnertime and people emerged to bustle around the bars and restaurants. On Vietnamese New Years Eve, also known as Chinese New Years and Luna New Years, the street is much the same except for an added expectation for midnight. There are fireworks at the witching hour but nothing spectacular and before long it’s over. It certainly nothing like traditional Western New Year’s Eve celebrations.

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Cu Chi Tunnels
There’s an extensive tunnel system running under much of Vietnam. The Cu Chi section is famous for being the site of several offensives. When I visited site, I joined a group and we were led through some of the tunnels. Our first stop was to a gun bunker where some of the entrance holes were too small for many of us.

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The tunnels themselves are short and thin, with many at Cu Chi having been enlarged for tourism. Even so, I still had to crawl through most of them. Being tall in Asia is not always fun.

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After a month in Vietnam, it’s time to move on. Next stop, Cambodia.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 4

I’ve recently ridden the length of Vietnam on a Scooter.

Incase you missed them:
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 1
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 2
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 3

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Day 18 – Nha Trang to Da Lat – 139km
Da Lat is in the southern highlands and is my first foray from the coast since my rained out trip to Tham Duc. This time the weather was amazing, with cloudless blue skies. Nha Trang’s crazy traffic was something I was grateful to leave and as I rode away from AH1 I rejoiced in the lack of roadworks and trucks.

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The road was one of the best so far as it slowly climbed into the mountains to a height of around 1500 metres. It got colder the higher I went and especially so when I was not in direct sunlight. I stopped for a break at an empty lot with a solitary tree that caught my inspiration.

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Most days I only pass one or two other tourist riders. Today I counted somewhere around 35 tourist bikes, many with passengers. I expected Da Lat to be a small mountain town but instead found a city surrounded by vast valleys of greenhouses. But then, it is the flower capital of Vietnam. While the motorcycle traffic was crazy, the city has a beautiful lake at its centre, along with pink blooming cherry trees.

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Day 19 – Da Lat Countryside Tour
For only the second time on this trip I booked a tour, desiring to be driven around for a change. Our first stop was a flower farm, busy because of Valentine’s day and Chinese New Year.

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Then it was off to a coffee plantation where we got to try Weasel Coffee. Weasel coffee turned out to be the Luwak coffee I’d tried in Indonesia. Apparently the Vietnamese only have one word which means both Asian Palm Civet and Weasel. We then stopped at a silk processing factory, where they create silk thread from silkworm cocoons. It was here we ate roasted silk worm. Not something you do everyday, or probably want to ever do again…

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We also visited the Hang Nga Guesthouse, also known as ‘the crazy house’. Built by a local architect the house has many walkways, some going over the rooftops or across the yards. The guesthouse is so popular that bookings are required months in advance. The owner has purchased several houses in the adjacent block and is in the process of adding them to the initial house.

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Day 20 – Da Lat to Phan Thiet – 159km
Coming down from the highlands saw an interesting change in temperatures. The long windproof pants, shoes and socks, jumper and windproof jacket became too hot. As I got closer to Pan Thiet I had to pull over and take off the jumper, but was still hot.

On a side note, hotels in Vietnam can be fairly cheap. This is what US$8.90 gets you.

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This includes cable TV, air con, double bed, ensuite bathroom, bar fridge and high-speed wireless internet. They aren’t luxury resorts and there’s no view, but you don’t really need these things when you’re either out exploring or sleeping.

Day 21 – Mui Ne Beach – 36km Round Trip
Eighteen kilometres from Phan Thiet is the popular tourist beach town of Mui Ne. Like Nha Trang, it’s very popular with Russian tourists, but while this seems to put some people off, I have no trouble with attractive Russian women. Exploring the area, I rode around several beautiful beaches (all unfortunately with their share of rubbish).

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I also found another Cham tower ruin similar to the one in Nha Trang.

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And I walked for a kilometre along the ankle-deep Fairy Springs. The red water leads through some very interesting formations in the white rock and orange sands.

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Day 22 – Phan Thiet to Vung Tau – 167km
Today was so hot I wore shorts and a t-shirt instead of my full riding gear. The road followed Vietnam’s southern coast with plentiful beaches. Then, not far from my destination I had bike troubles again and I stopped to get it fixed. That brings my total bike issues to eight.

I liked Vung Tau and wished I could have stayed longer, but with an expiring Visa I was running out of time. Even with the bike troubles, I still had time to explore the peninsula, and found this statue of Christ on one of the clifftops, listed as the 8th most famous Christ statue in the world.

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On a hill at the other end of the peninsula I found a large statue of St Mary beside the St Mary’s Church…

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They like putting things on hills here, as there are ones with sitting buddhas, temples, towers and no doubt others. Then out on the water, there’s a temple out on a small island which includes a pair of bunkers from the war.

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Day 23 – Vung Tau to Ho Chi Minh City – 116km
Today was to be a short day, but it just wasn’t to be. While the bike gave me little trouble, it was my replacement phone that sent me off along the wrong path before freezing until an hour later when I managed to find my own way to the main highway. From there it was fairly straight forward all the way to the hotel, passing what I call the Face of Saigon, an attraction at the Soui Tien Cultural Amusement Park.

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While I’ve enjoyed this experience greatly, the problems with my bike have given me enough frustration that I’m glad it’s come to an end.

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Next, I explore Ho Chi Minh City and make preparations to sell my scooter.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 3

I’m currently riding the length of Vietnam on a Scooter.

Incase you missed them:
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 1
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 2

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Day 12 – Hoi An to Kham Duc – 110Km
Today started out cloudy, but once I got into the highlands it began to pour. Before long I was drenched, even though my supposedly waterproof clothing, drowning my phone in one of my pockets. Then at one point I came around a corner too close to the road’s edge and came off my bike. My clothes took the brunt of the scrapes and I got off fairly lightly thanks to my sedate pace in the rain.

On arrival at the hotel I changed into dry clothes and surveyed the damage. While my phone was wet on the outside, water had only found its way into the SIM slot. This stopped my phone from connecting to the network via the SIM and removes my only navigation tool.

Day 13 – Tham Duc to Hoi An – 110km
As country Vietnam has less than optimal signposting and without the ability to navigate on my phone, I made the decision to head back to Hoi An. This was in hope of getting to an Apple store in Da Nang to get my phone either replaced or fixed. For my ride today the weather was clear with no threat of rain, and the journey back was actually enjoyable with some interesting views.

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Returning to Hoi An was fairly easy, although there was the occasional junction without adequate signage that was confusing. In Da Nang I located the Apple Service Centre but as it’s Chinese New Years getting parts would take weeks. I had no choice but to continue my journey without it.

Day 14 – Hoi An to Quang Ngai – 127km
Instead of heading back into the highlands, I rode south along the AH1, the main Asian Highway which stretches for over 20,000 km and crosses 16 countries from Japan to Turkey. As in previous days on the AH1 there were too many road works and even more trucks to spray up the dust. It took me 3 hours to get to the outskirts of Quang Ngai, but finding the hotel without my phone was troublesome. After settling into my room I headed out to find an ATM and to buy a cheap phone. After my purchase I stopped by the tomb of national hero Truong Cong Dinh, famous for leading an army against the french invasion force.

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Huang Ngai is also the site the Song My massacre. During the American War, the area was incorrectly identified as a Viet Cong stronghold. More than 400 innocents were slaughtered by American Soldiers, mainly women and children.

Day 15 – Quang Ngai to Quy Nhon – 204km
Today’s long ride was fairly uneventful. The AH1 continued to be the same with many road works, trucks and dust. Today the road cut through many flat, deep green rice paddies on the plains.

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Quy Nhon is an industrial city littered with large car dealerships and malls. It was nice to find a decent supermarket to stock up on some needed items.

Day 16 – Quy Nhon to Nha Trang – 218km
This morning I woke to find my back tyre flat, so after finding coffee, I located a mechanic to replace my entire rear tyre. With that fixed, I headed off, but when I stopped to take a photo 5 km along the highway, the bike wouldn’t start again. The starter motor cable had sheered off so I jury rigged it and headed back to the mechanic who fixed it for free.

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Today the AH1 followed the mountainous coastline and in the sunshine there were many beautiful views.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the hostel, I discovered that the screen of my new macbook had cracked. With the ongoing issues with my scooter and damage to other pieces of my equipment, this adventure is starting to be an expensive one. While I have enjoyed many parts of it, I’m starting to look forward to it being over.

Day 17 – Rest Day in Nha Trang

Nah Trang is a resort city on the sea. With direct flights from Moscow, it’s very popular with Russian holiday makers especially during the Russian winter. While it’s warmer here it’s not hot enough for me to consider it beach weather, but the many tourists used to cooler climates seemed to enjoy it immensely.

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Like most larger Vietnamese cities, the streets of Nha Trang are crazy with motorbikes flowing everywhere. I rode around the city in search of some of its sights and found the Nha Trang Cathedral, a neo-Gothic structure built by the French in 1933.

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Then on the north side of the city I found the Po Nagar Towers. The temple complex was built over 1,200 years ago by the Cham people, the civilisation that preceded Vietnam. The towers were part of a temple dedicated to the goddess of the country, which encompassing much of what is now Vietnam, Cambodia and southern Laos.

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For the final part of my journey – Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter Part 4 – I head back into the Central Highlands then along southern beaches to Vietnam’s largest city.

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The Lone Trail Wanderer