Cambodia Part 1: ChildSafe Travelling

Hi guys!

A bit of a heavy post today, but please read to the end, it's worth it!

As soon as we crossed the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, it was clear that there was a big difference between the countries. The roads were much bumpier, and just generally poverty was more apparent. Pooky, our tour leader, handed everyone out a leaflet from ChildSafe International which provided tips as to the best way to behave to improve the way children are treated in these countries. If anyone is planning trips to countries like Cambodia, Laos or Thailand then I would highly advise giving these tips a read - some are common sense but some are things you might not have thought about.

As poverty is rife in Cambodia, many children are sent to work at a very young age, usually selling things on the streets, or are even more severely abused. This is partly due to the lasting effects of the Khymer Rouge regime, which controlled the country between 1975-1979  and caused millions of lives to be lost. If you don't know about this, as I didn't before I chose to go to Cambodia, have a read about it because I think it's important we all know what has happened in such recent history. We spent the morning at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, which as their names suggest, was a fairly harrowing experience but again one I think it's important to learn about.

The only photo I took at the prison or Killing Fields: a memorial to the victims, which contains bones and clothes found in the mass graves
In Phnomh Penh, the capital, this poverty was much more obvious than in Siem Reap, which we visited later and this is largely because it bore the brunt of the Khymer Rouge regime.

That night, Pooky had asked if any of us would like to go to a charity dinner at a local family's house, which most of us chose to do. We rode there in tuk-tuks (the easiest way to travel in Cambodian cities) and even on the way there was children running after the tuk-tuks, in the middle of the busy roads, trying to sell us things which was difficult to watch.

But as soon as we arrived at our destination, the atmosphere was completely different. Children came running up to us as we got out of the tuk-tuks, but this time they just wanted to play with us. These were local children, who were being taught in a very small school which the family who were cooking us dinner runs, and that profits from our meal were going towards. We had such a lovely evening talking, laughing and dancing with the children and meeting the inspiring family who ran it all - not to mention eating a delicious home-cooked meal!

Don't worry - we joined in with the kids as well, to everyone's favourite Gangnam Style! Everyone was too busy having fun to get any photographic evidence of this.

I'm normally a bit dubious about going into schools etc. and spending time with children and then leaving, but I think you really need to assess these things on an individual basis: the children just wanted to have some fun with us and clearly knew we were only there for an hour or two, and the money our dinner would provide should hopefully benefit them directly.

We finished off our meal by having a shot of rice wine (don't let the name fool you, it's more like vodka) in which tarantulas had been fermenting. Yummy...

We also had a cyclo tour of Phnomh Penh and got to see some of the other sites, such as the Palace and the Independence Monument and the lovely river-front, but these two experiences were the most memorable parts for me. That evening was definitely one of my top two experiences of the whole trip.

Have you had any memorable moments like this on your travels?

Southeast Asian Shopping!

Hi guys!

I thought I'd take a wee break from my travel tales before I tell you about Cambodia to talk about the bits and pieces that I bought when I was there.

When I travelled last year to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand I hadn't really considered shopping as one of the activities I'd be doing there (apart from the fact that I intended to pick up some jewellery in Thailand). However, others quickly informed me that the shopping opportunities were great and were much more prepared than I was, giving themselves an extra day in Bangkok to do just that.

This year, I was fully prepared to purchase a thing or two. Firstly I'd like to say I am never normally one for buying things on holiday - I have kicked myself many times in the past for not buying enough mementos of the trip and now try to make a conscious effort to bring back a souvenir. However this time I just couldn't help myself! Some of the things I bought were things I knew I would use at home, others were practically necessities for travelling...

Firstly: clothes! If any of you have travelled to southeast Asia, or even just stalked through photos of friends who have, I'm sure you will have seen these baggy traveller trousers before. I'm not sure of their name, but you can get them in every pattern you could think of, and various styles: quite fitted, semi-baggy, or full on "Ali Baba" style as one shop owner said to me, which is extremely baggy! I went for the middle option, and firstly bought this pair in Hoi An for approx. £4.

After buying these and wearing them A LOT I thought I might as well pick up another pair, which I got in Siem Reap for approx. £2. These trousers are honestly practically an essential for travelling in this part of the world - they are so light and comfortable, and perfect for whipping on when you go to a temple where you need to cover up.

I also picked up a couple of baggy vest tops which are again super comfy travel wear. The white one, which I bought in Hoi An, says "Good Morning Vietnam" in Vietnamese - it was fixed price (I couldn't barter!) and was around £5 and the turquoise one I bought in Bangkok for £2. This one, which has the cutest saying on it, one of my travelling companions bought last year and when I knew I was going back to Bangkok I really wanted to get myself one too! Although that being said, when I was in London briefly the other day I spotted one on a stall just off Oxford Street. I'm pretty sure it would cost more than £2 though!

Finally on the clothes front, I picked up two gorgeous scarfs in Hoi An - one silk (~£4) and one pashmina (~£6).I have worn the pashmina one so many times since I got home. It's a gorgeous mixture of colours, and most importantly so soft!

Another near necessity while in Asia was a fan - which I had neglected to bring with me. Luckily, there were plenty of beautifully decorated ones to buy, I got mine in Hoi An - I think for about £2-3.

I also picked up a purse I had been eyeing up in the Siem Reap night market. It is made from recycled cement bags, and there was other styles made from other such materials as well as handbags etc. These are made by Angkor Recycled, which is a really cool concept, and you can get more info here but unfortunately I don't think you can order over the internet. I paid the equivalent of £2 for mine.

Finally, I couldn't leave Asia without picking up some Tiger Balm and the less famous Cup Balm and (very cutely named) White Monkey Holding a Peach Balm. These are great for putting on mozzie bites to relieve the itch, and they also reduce the swelling a bit I find. My tour leader would have you believe that it was a cure for all ailments but I wouldn't go that far! The packaging for Tiger Balm even lists flatulence as something it helps...I don't even want to imagine how that is supposed to work.

They mainly consist of menthol and similar ingredients, with the active ingredient being Camphor which is used in Vicks VapoRub as well. I am not really one for herbal type medicines, but I love these balms and would highly recommend picking some up if you head to that side of the world (in addition to packing some Hydrocortisone cream for really nasty bites). And besides, look at the pretty packaging! You can also get Tiger Balm in Boots in the UK, but it is about £4 for a small tub as opposed to £1 in Thailand.

With the exception of the balms and the Good Morning Vietnam top that I got in more traditional shops, everything I bought I haggled for. I really enjoy bartering, although I wouldn't say I'm by any means an expert and I know it's always daunting when you just don't know what price to ask for.

My tips would be:
1) Decide how much you'd like to pay for something (while not being ridiculous!). I decided before I asked how much the purse would be that I wouldn't want to pay more than $3 for it, and that's what I got it for.
2) Compromise! In some places, like the markets I visited in Cambodia the sellers would do most of your haggling for you if you just walked away, but in Vietnam they were much more set with prices and seemed to have a base price which they would not go below. If it's something you want, meet them in the middle and remember you're probably haggling over pennies.
3) Don't just buy things because they're cheap - if you think you'd genuinely use it then go for it. I like to call this the Primark mentality.

There are two more tiny purchases I made...but I'm saving that for another time!

What do you think of my purchases? Have you got any favourites from your travels?

Vietnam Part 3: Getting Silly Then Serious in Ho Chi Minh City

As we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (previously called Saigon) it became clear that what we thought was crazy traffic in the rest of Vietnam was in fact pretty tame. There are motorbikes everywhere in Vietnam, but it seems that in HCMC every single person owns one.

Try as I might, it seemed no photo could capture the sheer volume of traffic. Also, up to this point when crossing the road the rule has been "just walk out at a steady pace, the traffic will not hit you" but it looked like this would not work here!

That evening we ate in Pho 2000, quite a basic restaurant serving guessed it, Pho! Its claim to fame was that Bill Clinton had visited in 2000, and they had plenty photos on the wall to prove it. After that our tour leader Pooky took us for ice cream - here the hilarity begins. As we turned the corner, we see the place is called "Fanny Ice Cream" which reduced our group of primarily British travellers to immature giggles which was not helped by the various slogans of the place. The ice cream itself was delicious, I had an extremely hard time choosing but in the end went for a berry-flavoured sundae which came served in a cute cocktail glass.

As it turns out, it was quite good that we'd had such a night of laughs as a good proportion of the next day had a much more sombre mood, as we headed to the Cu Chi tunnels where we learnt a bit about the Vietnam war. I have to admit, my knowledge of the Vietnam war was pretty basic so I'm glad to know more now.

The Cu Chi tunnels have been set up for tourists, over part of the area where the rebel forces in the south of Vietnam, the Viet Kong, lived and fought the South Vietnam Army and allies. The tunnels themselves were used for the Viet Kong to hide in when the opposition was in the area. These days, they have opened one section of tunnels up for tourists and apparently have even been widened for that purpose but I was told they were still a pretty tight squeeze, and you have to go through them on your hands and knees. I am a little bit claustrophobic so decided not to go in, but did have a go in an old entrance/exit to the tunnels which has been blocked up at the bottom. We also got to see some pretty terrifying examples of booby traps the Viet Kong soldiers would have used.

We also got to try some tapioca, which is not the same as the dessert you may have been served in school, but is a root vegetable which was the staple food of the Viet Kong during the war. I was prepared for it to be pretty gross, but it was just fairly tasteless. It was alright, but I wouldn't have wanted to eat it solely for several years on the trot!

Our tour guide for the day was Hai, who was amazing. He fought for the South Vietnam side and with the Americans as a young man during the war and told us stories about his time that could honestly be made into a Hollywood movie today. Mostly, it was just nice to see someone who's been through something as awful as that and still be so positive - he talked about how he shares a drink every night with his neighbour, who was a Viet Kong solider during the war.

We then spent some time in the War Remnants Museum, which was pretty hard to take as it was filled predominately with photographs of people injured during the war or who have been victims of the chemical agents used including many babies and children who were born with deformities. I thought the number of photographs was just going overboard and it seemed like they were there for the shock value.

For some light relief and a pick-me-up, a few of us girls headed back to Fanny's! This time I went for passionfruit and pineapple sorbets - yum.

In the evening, we went for a group dinner followed by some cocktails on the roof terrace, where I enjoyed a Miss Saigon cocktail. When in Rome..!

The following morning we were back on the bus again for day trip to the Mekong Delta, where the Mekong river meets the sea. Here we saw local life (if slightly set up so it was suitable for tourist visits) - from a local group of musicians to coconut being manufactured into various different forms such as candy (mmm!) to a ride on a small river boat. It was a good day and a hot one, so when the traditional Vietnamese hats were on offer in our various forms of transport I jumped at the chance to wear them, more for the fact that they'd keep the sun off my head than for any photo opportunity!

The next morning, two of our group were leaving us (and two new joining) as we headed off to Cambodia. So of course, for their last night we managed to find another bar with Happy Hour (can you tell I love being in a country where Happy Hour is allowed, unlike in Scotland?!). We only arrived for the last 15 minutes of it so hastily ordered a couple of drinks each. It also had a pretty nifty logo (I'm not even sure of its name, I was just referring to it as Moustache Bar).

It was really quite sad saying goodbye to two of our new travelling friends! You forget how quickly you can become fond of people when you are spending all of your time together - I guess that's one of my favourite things about travelling.

So that's you all caught up on my Vietnam adventures. Well, apart from one last picture which I took the next morning at the bus station:

I mean, a bargain at 6p and 10p respectively is this policed?!

Vietnam Part 2: A Relaxing Few Days in Hoi An

After a whirlwind few days, having not staying anywhere more than one night so far, our next stop was Hoi An (confusingly, an anagram of Hanoi) where we would stay for 3 nights.

The drive from Hue to Hoi An, heading down a winding coastal road, was exceptional - the views were fabulous and one of those times I wished my camera/I was better at capturing a scene. Generally, the landscape in Vietnam was beautiful, with small mountain ranges very often on the horizon.

We arrived at the Vinh Hung 2 Hotel in Hoi An, which I would highly recommend. It had a great layout with the rooms looking over a central courtyard area where the pool was, the staff were friendly and left little sweet treats in our rooms on two out of three nights, and not to mention between 3.30-6.30 pm (though they were very lenient about this!) there was cocktail happy hour, making some cocktails the equivalent of £1 each! Mmmm passionfruit daiquiri! (The first of many passionfruit-themed cocktails for me on this trip!) It was a really lovely place to spend a few chilled days with our group.

Hoi An itself was a lovely, if slightly touristy, town. The historic centre essentially consists of, as one guidebook put it, "an absolutely ridiculous number of shops." Right up my street then! Many shops were actually very similar, but had things in slightly different patterns or styles, so you just had to go into them all...right? The main things being sold were clothing and scarves, as well as more souvenir type things like fans and chopsticks. I picked up a few bits and bobs, but I'll leave that for another post!

While Hoi An is famous for its shops, what it might be even more famous for is its tailors. There were many tailoring shops throughout the place, all offering incredible deals on made-to-measure clothing. If I had had an event in mind or even a designer dress I had always loved, I would 100% have got one made but alas, while they were very cheap (in the region of $60, about £40 for a mid-length evening dress, for example) I couldn't really justify it when I had no occasion for it. However, many people on our trip went for it and the coats, dresses, boots and suit jackets they had made looked brilliant!

We had some lovely dinners in Hoi An, including in restaurants called Morning Glory (snigger) and Hai Cafe, which was particularly nice. Hoi An at night was a little bit magical, with colourful paper lanterns being displayed and sold in many places.

And of course, I mustn't forget the absolutely delicious range of cakes on offer at the Cargo Club. Mine, on the right, was a passionfruit and chocolate mousse - NOM.

Hoi An was also located approximately 5 minutes by taxi away from Cua Dai beach - of course I couldn't resist a chance to have a little swim in the South China Sea. Having been lucky enough to have visited a couple of tropical beaches over the last couple of years, this wasn't my favourite but still a pretty cool way to spend a couple of hours!

Next, on to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City!

Do you like a relaxing few days in your holiday or are busy cities more your style?