Category Archives: Destination

The Volcanoes of Central and East Auckland

For the past few months I’ve been hibernating in New Zealand, working and resting from my travels. But next week a group of us will be doing the Tongariro Crossing so I figured I’d get in a bit of mild training by climbing six of Auckland’s volcanoes.

Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, was built upon the Auckland Volcanic Field which contains around 53 dormant volcanoes. While many have been mined flat, some still protrude from the suburban landscape and offer great views over the city (and mild climbing experiences).


From Mount Eden and looking east there is Mt Hobson to the left, Mount Saint John (vaguely) to the right and in the distance Mount Wellington.

Mount Eden – Maungawhau – 196m
The tallest of the six volcanoes is also the closest to the central city.


For this reason it is a very popular mountain among tourists providing great views of the city and Auckland Harbour.


Mount Eden has three craters and has easy access with car parks in several locations up the mountain. I began at the lowest point I could find to get the most of the climb.

Mount Saint John – Te Kopuke – 126m
My second volcano for the day is a lesser known one barely visible until you are virtually right on top of it. Compared to Mount Eden’s busy tourist vibe, I was alone on Mount Saint John except for a solitary family enjoying a picnic and a number of sheep. There is no car access to the peak and only a single crater.


The rim of the crater gives excellent views to the east and south, with other directions blocked by trees. There is a good view over the motorway to Mount Hobson near the summit.


Mount Hobson – Ohinerau – 143m
Directly across the motorway from Mount Saint John, Mount Hobson is perhaps one of the more human modified of all the volcanoes. It has been used for several things over the years, including an advertising medium. Due to its closeness to the motorway, signs and statements can often be mowed into the grass.


Mount Hobson was my favourite volcano of the day with a short steep climb with few other people around. It also provided perhaps the best views from all sides but especially of Auckland Harbour and Rangitoto Island, the largest volcano in the region.


One Tree Hill – Maungakiekie – 182m
One Tree Hill is the most famous “mountain” in Auckland and was once a special Maori landmark. Over the centuries it has had a tree growing at the top, thus its name, but due to attacks on the tree at various times, it was removed.


One Tree Hill sits near the middle of Cornwall Park and is a very popular family area on sunny weekends. Today there were many people in the park and at the viewing area at the summit.


One Tree Hill is the southernmost volcano of the six and provides great views out to Manukau Harbour.

Mount Wellington – Maungarei – 135m
Mount Wellington is the largest volcano in East Auckland and is a popular weekend spot with a deep cone that provides ample climbing for those keen enough. It is the youngest of Auckland’s volcanoes and like most of the others it is not expected to erupt again.


From the summit it provides excellent views over Auckland Harbour to the Bucklands Beach peninsula.


Pigeon Mountain – Ohuiarangi – 55m
The smallest and most eastern volcano of the Auckland Volcanic Field, Pigeon Mountain sits behind the house where I grew up.


I have spent many an afternoon climbing the small peak which gives excellent views in all directions especially along the Bucklands Beach Peninsula and south towards Manukau City.


While the climb up Mount Tongariro next weekend will be close to twice the height of the volcanoes I climbed today put together, it has given me some training towards what should be an epic climb. See you next week.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Mandalay, Myanmar

After a crazy mini-bus ride from Inle Lake, I arrived in Mandalay to discover the glass of my laptop screen cover was again cracked. It’s only the cover so no lasting damage but still annoying. Instead of taking the new wide smooth highway, the mini-bus used the old, bumpy and rocky roads. We spent half of the time bouncing out of our seats and my laptop must have jolted in my bag, coming down hard on one end. Ah well, I can live with it.


Central Mandalay
Mandalay has a more western and modern feel than Yangon, with less street markets and more shops selling things other than mobile phones. Unfortunately, with my foot still recovering from major blistering after the Kalaw Inle Lake trek, I found it difficult to wander more than a block from the hostel. On top of that, for the first time during this Myanmar trip it rained incessantly. I guess I’ve been lucky, others have complained of constant rain in both Yangon and Bagan. So on a day with less rain and to go easy on my foot, I hired a bike and rode around the city.

Mandalay Royal Palace
The first stop for the day was the massive walled area of the royal palace, with nine separate gates and a moat wider than the Brisbane River. After going inside and paying the US$ 10 archaeological fee, I rode through the grounds of the palace, which are largely out-of-bounds to foreigners, to the central reconstructed palace area.


Named, ‘The Famed Royal Emerald Palace’ and the ‘Great Golden Royal Palace’, the location no longer houses the original palace. Bombed to all buggery by the allies in the second world war a replica was built in its place using more modern materials — mainly corrugated iron for the rooftops. Most buildings are bare and empty although one that survived the bombing was the five-story watch tower. I got lovely views over the palace grounds although I got the impression many of the local visitors were more interested in getting photos of me than the palace.

Mandalay Hill
At one corner of the royal palace area stands the hill that gave the city its name. Covered in pagodas and temples the hill is a popular pilgrimage destination for monks with four sets of steps climbing to the summit. The steps stop at various temples along the 240 m climb although those who leave their flip-flops at the bottom are rewarded by having to dodge piles of bird and dog poop all the way up. The views from the top, however, are worth the annoyance of the climb, which is not difficult, only long.


National Kandawgyi Gardens
A two-hour group taxi ride to the East finds us in Pyin Oo Lwin, a small town locals from Mandalay come to for holidays away from the city. One of the hotspots here is the National Kandawgyi Gardens, a spot of beauty that took myself and a kiwi girl from the hostel several hours to walk around. It was certainly a change of pace from the city. The gardens are massive with a lake and plentiful kinds of flora growing around it. A great day!


The best way to see some of the sites of Mandalay is to book a day trip but be warned of extra charges along the way. The fee for the tour only covers the group taxi ride.

King Galan Gold Leaf Workshop
With so much gold leaf around this nation it was interesting to see how it is made. Workers pound by hand small squares of gold into sheets of gold leaf. They use 3 kg sledge hammers and belt the gold continuously for 30 minutes straight.


Maha Mauni Pagoda
We were delivered to one of Mandalay’s major pagodas and wandered around barefoot, again careful not to stand in the poop of birds that build nests under the ceilings. In the centre of the pagoda is a great seated buddha which locals climb to plaster gold leaf across its surface.


Mahagandhayon Monastery
Probably the most unusual part of the tour, we head to the monastery to watch lines of monks carry their bowls to be filled for the morning meal. It is unusual as at 10am every morning tourists swarm here to watch these monks (1000 of them) get rice. It must be bizarre from the monks side of things also.


Sagaing Hill
These are in fact two hills with pagodas atop each that providing great vistas of the surrounding landscapes in addition to sprawling chambers of buddhas.


Inwa Ava
After lunch we head to a river crossing and the more rural Inwa Ava area for two hours being driven along muddy roads in a horse-drawn carriage. At times I felt sorry for the struggling horse as it dragged two of us and the driver through difficult mud.


Bagaya Kyaung – The Teak Monastery
One of the attractions of the horse ride was the Teak Monastery built with many thick teak planks. It is a magnificent buildings except that it has suffered from fire damage and the wood has a thick black layer of soot across it. It is part of the Mandalay Archaeological zone so the card I purchased a couple of days earlier covers it. Otherwise it is a US$ 10 fee.


Me Nu Ok Kyaung – The Brick Monastery
Our final crazy carriage visit took us to another monastery, this one the most different in Myanmar as it is not built from wood but brick. With several levels, criss-crossing passages and small rooms with connecting windows this would have made a great play castle. I could imagine playing hide and seek all day in this place.


U Bein Bridge
Back in our group taxi and we head to the oldest and longest wooden bridge in the world. The teak wood bridge in the shape of a V is 1.2 km long and crosses the Taungthaman Lake. It is a haven of tourists, locals and monks crossing from one side to the other. But instead of walking back across, tourists can hire a boat and be rowed back, stopping midway for sunset, something that was unlikely to happen during our cloudy day.


Overall, I enjoyed Mandalay better than Yangon as there was more to do in and around the city. There was a feeling of being a sprawling warm city than the dirty mess of cramped streets of Yangon.

Next, I head back to Yangon for my last couple of days in Myanmar before I head back to Malaysia.

The World Wanderer

Bagan, Myanmar

Nestled in the curve of the Ayeyarwaddy river is Bagan, a city of beauty and wonder founded in the 9th century with the name Pagan. The city only survived four centuries, however, but during the final two hundred years more than 10,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries were built, 2,200 of which are still standing today.


After a nine-hour overnight bus ride north from Yangon I arrived in Bagan, paid the US$20 archaeological park entrance fee every visitor must pay and was delivered to my hostel at 4am. Unable to get into my dorm, I hired e-bikes with an american girl I met on the bus and we headed out to see the sunrise at one of the more popular pagodas.


Tourists could once rent scooters in this region but the taxi lobby had them banned. Locals, however, found a way around this law by introducing e-bikes, which are simply electric scooters. Most don’t go fast, barely 20km/h, and don’t have a great range although they also don’t need gas. There are quicker ones, such as the one I rented, with speeds up to 45km/h. In a land as hot as Bagan, you really do want the wind flowing past to keep you cool whenever you can.


When we arrived at the stupa in the dark there were only a handful of people there. But as sunrise grew nearer more people arrived to climb the large and popular pagoda. The rising of the sun gives great views across the landscape, which is mostly flat and littered with short trees.


But you don’t really notice the vegetation as there are so many pagodas and temples scattered around, some merely twice my height, while others are massive structures covered in gold leaf that shine brilliantly in the sunshine. The amazing thing about this landscape is that no matter which way you look there are scattered pagodas. The vista is absolutely stunning, like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.


The Bagan Archaeological area is surrounded by a bitumen road. Then crisscrossing the plains and providing access to the pagodas are wide dirt tracks. It does pay to be a little careful on these dirt tracks as there is often areas of sand which can make riding sometimes a little tricky.


There are simply too many temples and pagodas to document and it took me a good two full days of exploring to get my fill. For some, however, like my american bus companion, one day was enough and she was off the very next morning. Crazy if you ask me as this place holds so many wonders.


Sunset is a popular time to head out with a group, find a pagoda to climb and enjoy the view. In fact, sitting on ancient stonework with new friends as darkness floods the lands, is one of the more amazing aspects of this area. It was something I did on each night of my stay.


When the darkness comes some of the larger stupas light up. For the rest they are simply dark silhouettes in the evening. There is beauty here even in the darkness where you can just sit and drink in the tranquility of Bagan and her surroundings.


Began doesn’t have a UNESCO site rating as it was rebuilt by the military without using the original bricks, but the feel of the original city is still here. The military built other things in the area such as a golf course and a viewing tower. While these were looked down upon by the locals, the best view can be gained from the watchtower which stands out on the plains like some dark spire reaching towards the sky.


The other way to get great views is via one of the balloon rides. These, however, do not operate in low season and cost a small fortune. But beyond this, low season is definitely a great time to come here, while it gets a little hot during the day, there are far less crowds.


But there is more to the region than just a field full of pagodas. A 90-minute journey away is Popa Mountain where a series of stupas was built atop a rocky mountain. There are some pretty great views from the top, but the taxi will usually stop before the mountain for views of the mountain itself. There are 777 steps to the top, which can be fairly strenuous but also involves avoiding hordes of thieving monkeys. They seemed sated of their thievery when we were there so we had little issue with them.


One day while exploring, I stopped at one of the handy map boards scattered around the plains and was approached by a local girl asking if I would like a tour of her village.


As it happened it was exactly what I was hoping for and was happy to be led around the village. I met her family and neighbours, and saw how they weave their cloth, lacquer their bowls and spin cotton. This is her grandmother spinning cotton while her mother rolls cigars just out of picture to the left. They visit gave me plenty of insights into tribal life in the village, which helped me to detail the villages I’ve created in the novel I recently wrote.


Overall, Bagan was an amazing place and I even extended my stay because I was enjoying the surroundings so much. I was even sad when I decided to move on but there were other places I wanted to see. There is something deeply spiritual about Bagan that gives you a deep sense of peace. No other place I have been to on this trip have had that effect. This has to be one of my favourite places in the world.


Next I head across Myanmar to Inle Lake and a spot of hiking.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Yangon, Myanmar

In 1989 the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma became the Union of Myanmar. At the time it was a military dictatorship until it ceded to a democratic government in 2010. It was around this time that the borders opened and travellers such as myself began flocking to a country mostly untouched by the modern western world.


Five years later and it’s a very popular travel destination with many coming to the country to see it before it becomes the next Thailand, of which it borders.

Between 1974 and 1988 Myanmar was known as one of the world’s most impoverished countries. So, when I arrived in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and the country’s largest city, I was surprised to find it bustling with some large rich houses, many newer looking cars and a smart phone in most people’s hands. It seems the western world will not stay locked out for long as there is evidence of a slow seepage already occuring… There’s a KFC in the city, but only one, and it’s very popular with the locals. No doubt more will follow.


Yangon is a very busy city with just too many cars for the infrastructure, but unlike the rest of South East Asia there is not a scooter to be seen. Because everyone seems to own a car there are traffic jams everywhere and catching a taxi can be a very slow process although at their cheap fixed prices, it’s a better way to get around the city if you have the time.

Myanmar is still hanging on to its culture with fruit markets popping up everywhere as night rolls in. Most of the restaurants are what I call ‘plastic chair affairs’ – a stall set up with small plastic chairs scattered around short tables under the open sky. While mobile phones signs and satellite tv dishes are everywhere, it still feels very real and original. I’m sure this will change in time.


One of the more fascinating cultural elements seen in the city is the dress. Many women wear clothing usually associated with Thailand, but that is not seen often in that country these days. They come in many colours and are very pretty. Both men and women tend to wear the Longyi, a thick fabric sarong often worn over the more western long shorts.

While there is some use of western cosmetics, most women and many men use a traditional cosmetic called the Thanaka made of a bark compound applied to the cheeks and sometimes the forehead. It has several good properties including a fragrance similar to sandalwood and it is used as a sunscreen. It certainly makes everyone stand out.


This lovely young lady spoke excellent english as she harassed me to buy her postcards. I finally agreed after a bunch of haggling that included letting me take this photo.

During my visit, I got around the city to a few of the more popular tourist sites…

Shwedagon Pagoda
More than 2,500 years old, the pagoda enshrines strands of the buddha’s hair and several other holy relics. It is the most sacred buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, reaches 99 metres tall and is plated in gold leaf. At the top of the spire, an area known as the crown umbrella, there are 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies. At the very top, a place called the diamond bud, there is a 75 carat diamond.


The Shwedagon compound contain many different pagodas, stupas, shrines and statues. It is a very popular location with many groups of people in the different halls, praying and chanting. Most of the buildings are well maintained and often very shiny, like this silver one.


Each corner of the compound has a great Bodhi tree, the so called tree of enlightenment buddha liked to sit under.


Sule Pagoda
Said to be even older than the Shwedagon Pagoda, the smaller stupa is in the centre of the city. Standing at 45 metres tall and gilded in gold it stands out on the skyline of the city.


Legend tells that it was once the home of a powerful spirit called a Nat and now houses a single strand of the buddha’s hair.


Kantawgyi Gardens and Karaweik
Situated beside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Kantawgyi gardens is a grand park area surrounding a small lake. It is a very popular place on weekends for the locals who come to enjoy the surroundings of nature in the middle of the city. There are many areas where people can hide away and just relax. It’s a beautiful place with a great view of the Shwedagon pagoda sparkling gold across the lake.


But there’s another amazing sight in the park… Once floating, but now attached to one shore is Karaweik. It was an emperor’s palace, but is now a massive restaurant for the local elite.


Chau Htat Gyi Pagoda
The Chau Htat Gyi Pagoda holds a much revered statue that is known as the six-story buddha because it is literally housed in a six-story warehouse. And it’s just down the road from the five-story buddha, although as the six-story is reclining, its overall length is far greater than the sitting five-story buddha.


The site is over a century old and is even more massive than the golden reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.


Circle Train
At the cost of only US$1 you can board the circular train and ride it in a circle around the city returning three hours later to the central train station. It takes a long time not because Yangon is that large but because the train goes very slow.


The train is a fairly popular tourist experience as it takes you out into the country side, through smaller townships and past some of the more impoverished parts of the city. The ride was interesting and while the views were similar to some I’ve seem from a train in Bangkok, it was watching the locals go about their daily business that was more interesting. There were even wandering fruit vendors carrying trays of fruit on their heads. Because the train goes so slow, it doesn’t usually stop at stations, people just get on as the train slowly moves past.


After a few days in Yangon, I headed north to one of the great wonders of Myanmar, the Bagan Plains.

The World Wanderer

Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai, Thailand – Impressions

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, meaning ‘New City’, became the capital of the Northern Thailand in 1296, when the capital was moved from Chiang Rai. In the three months leading up to summer, there are many burn offs happening in the farmlands around the city. This drowns the region in the worst smog I’ve seen to date, even worse than Hanoi in Vietnam.


What is now known as ‘Old City’ is still partially surrounded by a wall and moat. It was used to defend the city from the Burmese and the great Mongol Empire. The city is considered a creative city, with many festivals held through the year, plentiful museums and art galleries.


Inside the walls of Old City there are many temples, but the number is dwarfed by the huge number of cafes.

Wat Chedi Luang

The temple literally meaning ‘Temple of the Big Stupa’ is at the centre of Chiang Mai’s Old City. It was once the home of the Emerald Buddha before an earthquake caused a partial collapse of the temple. The most famous of buddha statues was then relocated to Luang Prabang in Laos. For its 600th anniversary a copy of the Emerald Buddha made from black jade was housed in the temple.


There are three temples in the compound, the more modern Wat Ho Tham glows brightly during sunset, the sun glistening from its golden walls.


Wat Lok Molee

Just outside the Old City moat is another old temple built around 1350. It’s one of over 200 temples in Chiang Mail, many of them within the walls of Old City.


At the back of the temple is an ancient Chedi said to hold the ashes of the royal family from the Mengrai dynasty. When monks from Burma were invited to live here, it became the first location buddhism was accepted in Northern Thailand.


Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is the northernmost region of Thailand although it belonged to Burma until 1899. Before belonging to Burma it was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom which ruled in these parts.

With limited time, I booked a 1-day tour out of Chiang Mai to see some of the highlights of Chiang Rai…

Hot Springs

As the tour started at 7 am we stopped for breakfast at our first tourist spot for the day. Little more than a tourist trap, several hot springs are built into the car park surrounded by markets. At some of the pools, eggs are sold with little baskets that could be boiled in the hot water.


White Temple

The highlight of the tour was the artistic and stylish Wat Rong Khun also known as the White Temple. Of all the grand, modern temples I’ve seen in South East Asia, this has to be my favourite. A local artist completely rebuild the original temple from his own pocket, spending over US$1.25 million in its construction.


To enter the temple, visitors must cross the ‘bridge of rebirth’ representing the way to happiness by foregoing temptation, greed and desire. Beneath the bridge are hundreds of hands symbolising unrestrained desire and they are framed by tortured depictions of demonic beings.


Golden Triangle

The golden triangle is a point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. This area has a long history as a means of shipping opium between the countries. Poppy fields were once located on the Laos and Myanmar borders.

There is a boat trip across the river to an island in Laos which I decided not to take. As it turns out, this is another tourist trap and all that is on the island are markets.


Opium Museum

While my tour mates were on the riverboat trip at the Golden Triangle, I chose to take in the Opium Museum. While small, it was informative about how Opium arrived in South East Asia. Opium is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean with evidence of its use in Greece going back 3000 years. However, China became a large producer of the drug, shipping it south across the Burmese border and south into Siam.


While the tour took over 12 hours, much of it sitting in the mini-van. There were a couple of very interesting stops but at its heart the tour was merely a tourist trap, pushing us into markets with the hope of us buying products.

From here I head back to the Island of Langkawi in Malaysia where I will stop for a well deserved break from my travels for several months.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Siem Reap, Cambodia – Impressions

Siem Reap, meaning ‘the defeat of Siam’, is the centre of all tourism in Cambodia. Nearby is the Angkor Archaeological Park where there are of over 50 temple ruins – the once capitals of the Empire of Angkor.


From 835 AD to 1307 AD the Empire of Angkor, also known as the Khmer Empire, ruled much of South East Asia including what is now Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and much of Vietnam. Angkor was the capital city at the centre of the empire and at its centre was a grand temple. When a new king took control of the empire he would often establish a new capital nearby and build a grand temple at its centre. Over time there were many such cities and central temples built.


While most of the earlier temples were constructed using sandstone, later temples were built from less long-lasting materials. Most of these temples have long since disappeared. Like the ruins of the Mayans in Central America, Angkor is thought to have been abandoned because of drought and a lack of water in the region.

Angkor Wat

Built between 1113 AD and 1150 AD, Angkor Wat, at 1.5 km by 1.3 km, is the largest religious monument ever to have been built. Meaning ‘City Pagoda’, the temple grounds housed an entire city and while the other temples in the region were abandoned over the years, Angkor Wat remained in use.


Angkor Wat is made up of concentric galleries found in most Khmer temples that lead to a main central temple. Each concentric gallery is built taller than the previous one to form a pyramid, another typical Khmer structural design. The Angkor Wat temple is surrounded by a wide moat with only two causeways leading into it.


Angkor Wat is a major Hindu temple designed to resemble Mount Meru in Northern India, the home of the Hindu gods. It has five main towers to represent the five main peeks of the sacred mountain.

Angkor Thom

Built around 1200 AD, Angkor Thom, meaning ‘Great City’, was the largest and the last of the Angkor capital cities.


At the four entry points to the city there is a face-tower gate representing the Hindu God Brahma. At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple.


Built around 1200 AD as the temple at the centre of Angkor Thom, it is thought to be one of the most powerful religious structures ever built.


The temple is very complex and is thought to have been reworked several times since its creation. There were 49 distinct towers, most with the four faces of Brahma built into them. They were arranged in ever higher tiers to create a stone mountain.

Ta Prohm

Built around 1186 AD as a monastery temple, it was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s mother.


While many of the temples in the region were reassembled, La Prohm was left in its natural state with only a minimal amount of work done to prevent further collapse. The ruins are said to have a romantic atmosphere because of the intertwining trees growing through the structure.

Banteay Kdei

Built around 1200 AD its name means ‘Citadel of Many Chambers’.


It was constructed over another temple built 200 years earlier and has been left in its ruined stated.

Prasat Kravan

Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, the small structure was built in 921 AD.


The name means ‘Cardamom Sanctuary’ after a tree that once stood in the compound.

Pre Rup

Built in 961 AD by the then King Rajendravarman as the centre of his capital city.


Pre Rup means ‘turning the body’ and is a cremation rite where the ashes of the dead are rotated at certain times during the ceremony. After the king’s death, the capital was moved back to Angkor.

Banteay Samre 

Constructed around 1130 AD its main tower is the same as those at Angkor Wat although it has many similarities to temples of northern Thailand.


East Mebon

East Mebon temple is known as the Elephant Temple because of the several elephant statues around the structure.


It was built as an island on the now dry East Baray, a water reservoir measuring 7.5 kilometres by 1.8 kilometres.

Ta Som

This small temple is said to be a miniature version of Ta Prohm or Banteay Kdei temples. It is known as Gaurasrigajaratna – the Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant.


Neak Poan

Near Poan is a small monument at the centre of a large pond, which is at the centre of a further four smaller ponds.


Build in the late 12th century it was built on an island in a water reservoir. It is speculated to represent a sacred Himalayan lake said to hold healing waters with four rivers running from it.

Preah Khan

This large temple was also a Buddhist university with more than a thousand teachers.


It was said to have been built on a lake of blood, the site of a major battle to recapture Angkor from the Cham empire, where the Cham King was slain.

Pub Street and Night Markets
One day is just not enough to see all the temple ruins, and even in two days I only saw 13 of the 53. But after two days out on a tuk-tuk in the heat and intense humidity I was templed out.

At night Siem Reap lights up around two main areas, Pub Street and the Night Markets. You can tell when you’re in the area because of the large neon signs announcing them. Overall, it’s very touristic with many restaurants, bars and markets.


Next, it’s time to leave Cambodia and head back to Thailand.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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).


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Vietnam South1

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

The Lone Trail Wanderer