Tag Archives: temples

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

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

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

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 2

I’m currently riding the length of Vietnam on a Scooter. Here’s Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 1 if you missed it.


Day 6 – Hong Linh to Dong Hui – 223km
While the more direct route would have been about 50km shorter, today I wanted ride the Ho Chi Minh highway for the first time. This highway follows the Ho Chi Minh Trail used during the American War with amazing mountainous scenery. The weather remained fairly good, although I had to stop to put pack-covers on my bags when a particularly nasty cloud threatened, but nothing came of it.


I arrived at Dong Hui and after getting settled into my hostel, took a ride around a city that had been laid waste during the war. Dong Hui is virtually a new city, as there’s little left of how it was. The city isn’t on the tourist route and the beautiful empty beaches were serene.


Day 7 – Dong Hui to Hue – 176km
Today started out with blue skies over the ocean but began turning sour after half an hour out from Dong Hui. While it didn’t actually rain, it seriously threatened to. With heavy black clouds further inland, I decided to take a more direct route to Hue. I’m not sure which would have been the lesser of the two evils, getting rained on or riding through the constant road works every 2km. To make it worse, the roads were jammed with trucks spraying up dust and sand from the road works. Before lunch I rode through the Demilitarized Zone, crossing out of what was North Vietnam and into South Vietnam, stopping at the War Memorial Monument.


Then as I arrived on the outskirts of Hue, I crossed another milestone, my 1000th kilometre on the road since leaving Hanoi. Later in the afternoon, I walked around the ruins of the Imperial City and at its centre, the forbidden Purple City. it was home to the ruling dynasty between 1800 and 1950, when Hue was the Vietnam’s capital.


Day 8 – Hue Rest Day
There are many stories of motorcycles that break down regularly on this trip through Vietnam. While often cheap to repair because most Vietnamese boys over the age of 12 can fix them, it’s inconvenient. To date I’ve suffered only a flat tyre and in hopes of staving off any other issues, I got the scooter serviced. While the bike was away, I took the day off and just hung around the hostel.

Day 9 – Hue to Hoi An – 130km
Since the ride to Hoi An was to shorter than average, I decided to see more of the sights around Hue before heading on. I found the Thien Mu Temple and Pagoda a little away from the Imperial Palace and stopped for a look.


Around Hue, there several tombs belonging to the emperors who ruled from Hue. I took some time to visit the closest one to town – Tu Duc Tomb – and was surprised at how large the area was. The location was called the Second Imperial City as the emperor used it as his ‘man cave’ to get away from affairs of home and state.


After my visit I headed to Hoi An, but on the way disaster struck. An hour out of Hue I got a flat tyre, then only a minute away from where the puncture was repaired, the engine cut out and wouldn’t start again. The ‘mechanic’ who fixed my tyre and who didn’t speak any english informed me I needed a new carburetor. Ninety minutes and a million Dong (US$47) later I was back on the road. So much for servicing it to prevent it breaking down. I continued on, crossing the Hai Van Pass and eventually arrived in Hoi An two hours later than expected.

Day 10 – Exploring Hoi An
Like Hue, Hoi An is a popular tourist spot. After breakfast, I headed out on the bike to a location called My Son where there are the ruins of an old Hindu temple complex. Of the buildings, some have barely a column standing while others are in the process of being rebuilt.


I then rode into Da Nang, a city north of Hoi An, to a place called the Marble Mountains. Atop the monolithic mountains is a large buddhist temple complex with plentiful adjoining caves.


The Marble Mountains give great views along My Khe Beach, as 30 km stretch of nicknamed China Beach by the Americans during the war. It was used as both an evacuation hospital area and site for rest and recreation during the war.


Day 11 – Hoi An Rest Day
As I had spent a lot of time on my bike around Hoi An yesterday, I decided to take the day off and just relax around Hoi An, so I did.

Vietnam Central1

In Part 3, I head south into the Vietnamese highlands.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 1

Riding a motorbike the length of Vietnam is becoming a popular way to see the country. After hearing about a fellow traveller’s motorcycle adventure from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City I decided to do it. So I bought a scooter in Hanoi and prepared for an adventure that would take the better part of three weeks.


Here’s a brief breakdown of my trip…

Day 1 – Hanoi to Ha Long Bay – 167km
Ha Long Bay is a tourist destination not traditionally part of the Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City route, but I added it anyway. It would give me a chance to test my scooter over long distance.

The main highway is well maintained and once I was out of the super bustle of Hanoi it was even relaxing. With my speed averaging between 50 and 60 kilometre per hour, a good speed without pushing the scooter, the trip took about 5 hours. With a terribly sore arse and only 5km short of my hotel I discovered I had a flat tyre. A friendly local offered to fix it for me for US$5.

Later, after checking into my hotel I went for a ride to have a look around the city and book a cruise.


Day 2 – Ha Long Bay Boat Cruise
It was a misty, overcast day for my cruise. But being the middle of winter all is forgiven. Ha Long Bay means literally ‘descending dragon bay’ and has around 1600 limestone monoliths scattered around it. While it was chilly out on the water and the skies grey, the views were still amazing. Mist hung around the monoliths giving the bay both an eerie and magical appearance.


The tour took us to some interesting places and we got to walk through the depths of Thien Cung Grotto, a large touristy cave system where many sections were lit up in colours.


We also visited a floating village, a fish market and a pair of small monoliths called Fighting Cock Rocks, which from certain angles look vaguely like a pair of chickens fighting.

Day 3 – Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh – 175km
On several occasions during today’s ride it threatened to rain, but other than vaguely spitting, nothing came of it. Today, when my arse began to get sore, I stopped and got off the bike for a bit. Five minute every hour seemed to work well.

I arrived in Ninh Binh on time and after settling in the hotel, I headed out to explore. I found a place called Bich Dong Pagoda, which is a buddhist temple set into the side of a limestone mountain.


I followed a path into the cave, up a long set of stairs to a higher cave and a shrine, outside and up another set of stairs to another building which offered great views. A thin trail lead up around behind this building and ever curious, I had a look. Thirty minutes later, I’d climbed the jagged rocks of the mountain and stood at the top looking out over monoliths surrounded by wet rice paddies.


Day 4 – Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa/Sam Son Beach – 64km

The weather has been overcast for much of my time in Vietnam, clearing up a little in the afternoons. Today, however, I awoke to blue skies. This decided my next stop. The beach. The ride was barely longer than an hour and as I arrived in Thanh Hoa, I discovered the huge Thien view Truc Lam Ham Rong temple and pagoda on a hill.


Then when I was settled into the hotel, where beyond the word ‘hello’ no-one could speak English, I was back on the bike and rode the 13km out to Sam Son beach. While the skies were bare of clouds, the beach was virtually empty. Winter. I rode around the Sam Son area for some time, discovering a large portion of the beach front is a construction zone. Dozens of brick buildings are in the process of being demolished, likely to build more resorts.


Day 5 – Thanh Hoa to Hong Linh – 174km

Today’s five hour ride was fairly straightforward. In the small town of Hong Linh, I arrived at my hotel to find the years had not been kind to it. Seven years ago, a flood struck the town, possibly flooding the lower levels and killing the hotel’s business. After settling in, I took a ride around town and stopped to admire the local catholic church.


Compared to the rest of Asia, Vietnam has a lot of churches. You can see their spires as you approach each city and town. In comparison, there are very few buddhist temples, although most houses still have shrines.

Vietnam North1

In Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Scooter – Part 2, I travel into Central Vietnam and explore the areas struck hardest by the American War.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Vang Vieng, Laos – Impressions

Vang Vieng was little more than a staging post Vientiane and Luang Prabang until the US airforce built an airbase there during the Vietnam War. Since the war the town has attracted backpackers who have flocked there as a site of adventure.


Four hours by bus north of Vientiane, Vang Vieng is nestled on the Nam Song river surrounded by mountains. It was perhaps the second worst bus ride of my travels but on arrival it felt glorious to be in the mountains again. But even though Vang Vieng is only 234 metres above sea level, the days are cooler and the nights often chilly. It’s the first time I’ve had to wear long pants in Asia.


Vang Vieng has a reputation. The New Zealand Herald once suggested, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” And I would have to agree with them. Vang Vieng’s target audience seems to be backpackers in their 20s.

Wat That?
Well duh, it’s a temple. Wat That is one of five such temples in town in the typical Laotian style.


Pha Poak Mountain
Not far from town is a small rocky hill which gives great views over the larger mountains and a panoramic view across the town. While on a casual stroll around town, I followed a sign across the river and through a set of fields to the hill.


I hadn’t intended to climb anything as I was only in flip-flops, but since I was there I climbed it and indeed the views were superb.


Take a large tyre inner tube, a backpacker and a river, and you have tubing. An idea formed by the locals who organised themselves into a cooperative business involving more than 1,555 households. Tuk-tuks drop groups ten kilometres upstream where they launch into the water and drift their way slowly back to town a handful of hours later.


While the views are amazing along the way the scenery isn’t the only drawcard. At various points along the river, locals have set up river bars for tubers, throwing out ropes to drag them in. Along the river there are other adventures to be had, trekking to caves, zip lining and other such activities.


Unfortunately, the safety levels are fairly low and 22 tourists were killed during 2011 on such tubing trips. Supposedly safety measures have been better implemented since then. and while it has reduced the deaths, they haven’t stopped entirely. I chose not to do the tubing, instead choosing another method to float down the river.

As part of a full day tour, I kayaked with a group along the river. Unfortunately because it’s dry season the river was low, so we only kayaked for about 6km instead of the usual 15km. I managed to get a solo kayak to myself and this allowed me more freedom.


The views of the river and surrounding mountains were marvellous. A little way along, we started encountering the river bars and stopped at one for a beer.


Then it was back in the water and paddling along through brief periods of rapids and slow patches. On my smaller solo kayak I was able to quickly paddle back up the river to some of the other kayaks, spin around and paddle backwards, or just drift sideways. It was a lot of fun. I found that many of the more dangerous swings and other activities had been closed.


Wet Cave
I did end up on an inner tube at one point. As part of the kayaking day tour, we floated into a low-roofed water-filled cave with head lamps on.


The water was quite cold, but I quickly became accustomed to it. The cave was perhaps only 50 metres long with a loop at the end.


Elephant Cave
Perhaps one of the smaller of many dozens of caves in the region, we went to a cave where elephants used to sleep when it rained. When humans moved to the area and planted crops, the elephants ate it all, so the locals were forced to move the animals. The cave is now a buddha shrine.


Overall, Vang Vieng is a peaceful little town on the backpacker route. It’s just a shame that the backpackers are often attracted here more for the partying aspect rather than the adventure, but thus is South-East Asia. If I had more time, I would have hiked through the mountains for several days. Perhaps another time…

Next I head north for my final Laos destination, Luang Prabang.

The Long Trail Wanderer

Vientiane, Laos – Impressions

Compared to the massive sprawling beasts that are most capital cities in South East Asia, Vientiane – pronounced ‘Vieng chan’ — is decidedly small town. But even with only two hundred and ten thousand people, Vientiane is still the largest city in the Laos.


Because ‘chan’ has two meanings in the modern Lao language, Vientiane is known as both the ‘City of the Moon’ and ‘City of Sandalwood’. The city is nestled on the northern bank of the Mekong River, with Thailand on the other side.


Sleeper Train
The 12-hour journey from Bangkok to Laos was by overnight train, my first experience on a sleeper train. I booked in the second class car and ended up with an upper berth. Being 189 cm tall (6’3”), I was concerned that I might not fit. But when the bed was made up and I climbed into it, it was just enough.


I’ve slept in tighter locations and actually got a good sleep. The train has two toilets per car, a western toilet and a squat toilet, but instead of going into a septic tank, waste simply drops out a hole in the bottom of the car onto the tracks. I guess it’s biodegradable. By about 10pm the car was silent with most curtains closed.


Buddha Park
About 25 km east of Vientiane is a sculpture park called Xiang Khuan, meaning Spirit City. The site was begun in 1958 by a monk who integrated both Hinduism and Buddhism into the sculptures. There are over a hundred statues in the park, some quite massive. The largest is the reclining buddha…


Another piece has a crawlway inside and has several chambers on three levels and access to the roof.


There are several ways to get to the park, by tour bus, tuk-tuk, or as I did, by scooter!

Petuxai – The Victory Gate
Also known as the Gate of Triumph, the monument is dedicated to those who fought for independence from France in 1949.


The monument resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but is Laotian in design and decorated with mythological creatures. The structure has 7 levels, the top three giving great views across Vientiane.

Pha That Luang
The golden buddhist stupa is regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and is a national symbol. It is suggested to have been built in the 3rd century and is surrounded on three sides by other temples.


That Dam
A black stupa said to be inhabited by a seven-headed naga, a water deity taking on the form of a large snake with the upper body of a female. This creature was to have protected Laos from the Siamese army in 1827.


Nagas are the divine enemy of Garuda, the great eagle ridden by Shiva in the Hindu religion.

Like all cities in Asia, Vientiane is littered with temples. Most temples have a very Thai design — or maybe the Thai temples have a Laotian design — but in Lao the temple compound is usually surrounded by a series of shrines. Laotian temples often have a tower in their compounds that can be climbed.


Here are some of the temples I visited in my travels in Vientiane:

Wat Si Maung


Wat Si Saket


Wat Mixai


Wat Thatlueng Neua


COPE Visitor Centre
Laos is the most bombed country in the world. With a major portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail running through Laos it was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War in attempts to sever the Vietcong supply lines. But also during bombing runs, if the US had not expended all of its ordinance it would be discarded over Laos.

COPE is an organisation that provides rehabilitation to Laotians who have suffered disabilities from unexploded munitions left over from the war. The Visitor Centre is a museum which also presents a documentary film following one such victim.


Overall, Vientiane surprised me. Considering Laos is a poor country, the capital was more advanced than I expected. There were more Apple stores than any other city I have ever been to (including the US), a large western style cafe district and a decided lack of US chain restaurants — not a KFC, McDonalds or Starbucks in sight.

Next, I head north to the backpacker town of Vang Vieng.

The Lone Trail Wanderer