Tag Archives: asia

The Worst Laid Plans

I have to admit that sometimes I’m a little jealous of how other people make their travel plans. I envision them sitting in their living rooms, with a cup of coffee in their hands, pouring over glossy travel brochures with pretty pictures of all the places they have dreamt about. They have arranged dates with their boss, perhaps 6 or 8 months in advance, agreeing on the best time for themselves and their employer to take that much needed 2 weeks.

They are well over their previous holiday, having had enough time to reflect on and properly relive the magic moments of their preceding exotic experience. They are rested and ready to begin planning. Enough time has passed since the last excursion that the struggles, difficulties and regrets of travel have all faded and the desire to conquer new destinations overrule any trepidations they may have.

 

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Kandy Lake

 

They have plenty of time to prepare a detailed itinerary of all the things they want to see and do. Time to pick the most comfortable flights, find the best entertainment and select the best accommodations their budget affords them. Time to prepare an appropriate wardrobe of fashionable accessories, book tickets and acquire the latest gadgets and guidebooks to make their future adventures as fulfilling as possible.

We were sitting in a relaxing chair on the spacious lawn of our hotel in Jaipur with checkout looming the next morning, briefly basking in our highly successful month-long stay in India when the feeling of impending doom overcame us. We literally had no ideas and no plans past the next 12 hours. The bliss of the sunny afternoon quickly faded and panic began to set in. The easiest option, of course, would have been to continue our trip in India. We didn’t want to ruin our wonderful month in India by overstaying our visit. We were too late to rent an apartment in Europe, especially for a month. The blinding heat of South East Asia sounded unpleasant, at best.

 

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Buddhist Temple- Kandy

 

A quick search of flights brought our focus to Sri Lanka. We found an affordable flight from Jaipur to Colombo with a quick stop in Bengaluru and with no more thought, booked it. Neither one of us knew anything about Sri Lanka. We had heard of Kandy, with its Temple of the Tooth, but that was it. We found a hotel in Colombo near the Fort train and bus station and booked it for 2 nights, hoping that would give us enough time to conjure an itinerary from there. Being near the transportation hub, we thought would be convenient for onward travel. We literally took 45 minutes to plan our next country to visit. Not really the best decision, but hopefully it would work out for the best.

We had a bit of a panic when we read later in the day that a visa was needed for entry. Visa on arrival was possible but was not always granted. It was highly advised to apply ahead of time. Yikes. We found the paperwork online, filled it out, and hoped it would be approved by the time we arrived the next evening.

We arrived at the Jaipur airport the next day after checking out of the hotel and found out immediately that our Indigo Airlines flight was delayed by 3 hours. Irritating but not really that bad except that we only had a 4-hour layover in Bengaluru. When we were told we would have to change terminals in Bengaluru and get another boarding pass the tension increased. Indian airports have elaborate security and it is difficult to enter the terminal quickly. We didn’t see any way we could exit one terminal and pass through security of another in just one hour. Our poorly made plans were already falling apart and we hadn’t even left India yet.

 

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Kandy Botanical Gardens

 

After a mad dash and several jumped lines, we made our flight with minutes to spare and arrived an hour later in Colombo. Our visa had been approved and we caught a taxi to our hotel near the train station. The hotel was archaic and dilapidated and the internet was worse than dialup. At least it was clean and had a hot shower.

Without the internet, onward plans were impossible. The hotel was surrounded by auto parts stores and no place that had internet access. We decided to catch a tuk-tuk to the train station. The trains in Sri Lanka are famous for beautiful scenery and we thought that would be our best bet. We found that every train was booked for the next month. They have standing room only open cars for walk-ups, but with heavy bags, we thought it would be impossible to get a spot the next morning. Although Kandy, our chosen first destination, was only 120 kilometers away, the bus ride was over 4 hours in a no-AC bus. With no other options, we decided to hire a driver. Way over budget but at least we would be comfortable.

Kandy

We found a nice guest house in a perfectly restored historic house built in 1912. The room was modern and comfortable and the family that ran the place were very pleasant. We had booked for 2 nights but ended up staying for 4, mostly just for planning and a little rest. Exhausted from India and 3 days of frustrating travel we needed time to make plans, do laundry and just rest.

 

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Buddhist Temple- Kandy

 

I had visions of Kandy being a small town, high in the mountains with clean air and quiet streets. It turned out to be anything but what I imagined. While higher than Colombo and slightly cooler, the days were hot. Centered around a pretty central lake, the city has grown to fill the surrounding valleys with shoddily built houses and congested roads.

Sri Dalada Maligawa, more commonly called “The Temple of the Tooth” is a Buddhist Temple located adjacent to the lake. The tooth is a relic from Buddha and legend has it that whoever possesses the tooth controls the country. We toured the temple grounds but hoards of package tourists deterred us from entering. The tooth on display is apparently a copy which also made the admission cost prohibitive.

We enjoyed coffee in the Queen’s Hotel across the street. A classic, old school British Hotel, it offered whirring fans and a nice ambiance for relaxing in the afternoon heat. We walked around the lake area. Too many cars, tuk-tuks and smoke-belching buses deterred us from an exploration of the downtown area, which was mostly filled with small stores and rice and curry restaurants.

 

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Flying Fox- Kandy Botanical Gardens

 

We made our way up the hill to the towering Buddha statue that is visible from everywhere in the center. At 88 feet tall the giant white temple/statue has good views of the city and surrounding area. Another day we visited the very nice botanical gardens. Massive palm trees and vast lawns are lined with tropical plants and flowers from all over the world. Of particular interest to us were the thousands of giant bats (flying foxes) that inhabited many of the trees in one corner of the garden. Part intriguing and part frightening they were interesting to observe for half an hour.

Sigiriya

We caught an AC bus the next morning at the hectic Kandy bus station. We headed north to our next destination of Sigiriya, the fortress/city of the ancient Sri Lanka rulers. Located on a stark mountaintop in the middle of a vast jungle plain, the little that remains of the fortress is enough to indicate that it must have been amazing in its time.

 

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Sigiriya

 

The bus dropped us in the small town of Dambulla, where we caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel in the jungle at the foot of the fortress. The jungle lodge was located down some bumpy dirt roads and offered perfect views of both Sigiriya (Lion Rock) and the neighboring Pidurangala Rock. Our room was simple but comfortable and we enjoyed conversations with fellow travelers on the wraparound porch.

As we were only booked for 2 nights and it looked like a potentially good sunset, we made the decision to climb Pidurangala Rock and attempt to capture a nice picture of Lion Rock. Most visitors brave the steep stairs and massive crowds to climb to the Lion Rock itself, but we were told it was much better views and less crowded to ascend the neighboring mountain. The path to the hill passed through a small Buddhist temple and then up 400 steps to the finishing scramble across the large boulders close to the summit. It was breathtaking, both from exertion and the wonderful view from the top. The sunset wasn’t as good as we hoped but the views were memorable. The knee shattering walk down the hill made sleep in the quiet jungle lodge easy that night.

 

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Elephant Safari- Sigiriya

 

Sri Lanka is famous for its large population of wild Asian elephants. Located in several parts of the country, herds can be found in different parks at different times of the year. We found a very inexpensive nearby park and book a safari for the next afternoon.

Our driver, a friend of the lodge owner, was described as a bit of an “elephant whisperer” who had a unique ability to find the elephants when other drivers couldn’t. It sounded encouraging and he arrived on time in his slightly worn safari jeep. We made a stop at a roadside temple where he made a small donation and said a quick prayer to Ganesha, which seemed appropriate.

Upon arrival at the park, we found we were not alone on our safari. More than fifty other jeeps were in the parking lot, all loaded with camera ready, safari dressed tourists ready for their jungle experience. Our elephant whisperers main plan to find the hidden beasts seemed to be to get behind another vehicle and ride along the dusty roads until he came upon the large pack of vehicles who had already found elephants.

 

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Elephant Safari- Sigiriya

 

For the next 3 1/2 hours, we bounced around on the poorly maintained roads, never far from another jeep. While it was nice to see animals in the wild, I actually felt sorry for them as they would inevitably be found surrounded by long lens packing visitors excitedly attempting selfies with elephants in the picture. Our driver never seemed to park anywhere except behind other vehicles or bushes which made good photos difficult. As the day progressed, the heat and dust became overwhelming and the constant chatter of bored tourists made thoughts of any kind of pleasant nature experience impossible.

Exhausted from 2 days in Sigiriya, we got up early the next morning to catch our bus onward.

Nuwara Eliya

We passed back through Kandy bus station and quickly caught a connecting non-AC bus into the hills. The road wound endlessly up into the green hills. The temperature dropped noticeably. As the houses thinned, we passed many of the tea plantations Sri Lanka is famed for. The neatly spaced rows endlessly covered the hills and combined with the cooler temperatures made the windy trip somewhat enjoyable. The views of valleys and hills were beautiful and for the first time we relaxed and began to enjoy ourselves.

 

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Tea Plantation- Nuwara Eliya

 

Nuwara Eliya itself is a nice enough town. It shows some of the British influence from colonial days with a cute Post Office and golf course in the center. Our guest house was located behind the Grand Hotel and, while slightly worn, was comfortable enough.
We wandered the center and found a few decent places to eat. Sri Lankan food was a bit of a disappointment after the feasts we enjoyed in India and we found a couple of western style places with just enough local ambiance to make them enjoyable for lunches and light dinners.

We decided that we should visit a tea plantation and asked a tuk-tuk driver if he knew where it was. He said yes and after 20 minutes of a 5-minute trip we realized he didn’t know where it was. He ended up taking us almost 30 minutes back toward Kandy, which while expensive, in a way gave us a chance to see some of the countryside.

We toured the tea factory and learned about how tea is processed. The tour was interesting enough and the views around the property were nice. Our 4 days in Nuwara Eliya seemed long and we were anxious to move on.

Ella

Ella was to be our last stop in the hills of Sri Lanka. This is the major destination of backpackers in the country. Most people ride the train from Colombo but since we had not ridden it we decided to take it backwards from everyone else since we could get tickets and the views were supposed to be amazing.

 

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Little Adam’s Peak- Ella

 

Hiking seems to be the main activity in Ella, along with walking the busy main street of the town. The air was cool and the countryside was pretty, with jungle-covered mountains and scenic valleys.

A popular hike is just out of town to view the 9 Arches Bridge, a stone bridge built in the early 20th century. Everyone times their visit to see one of the arriving trains cross the bridge. The hills are steep but the path was easy to follow. We found a nice thatched shack that served Nescafe and cold drinks and provided a good view of the train crossing the bridge. We laughed at the large population of aggressive selfie-taking narcissists who fought for position as the train crossed, each contorted into some strange pose that must look good on Instagram. Straw hats and polka dot dresses with their back turned to the camera seemed especially popular during our visit.

 

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Nine Arches Bridge

 

Another day I hike up Little Adam’s Peak A winding dirt road led through tea plantations to the steep hill that led to the promenade. Nice views were had from the top. The sunset faded at the last moment to the disappointment of the scores of Instagrammers that arrived during the last half hour.

A lot was made of Ella as a perfect Nirvana in the hills. While it was a nice enough place, it is well discovered and the single main street is built up with bars and restaurants to cater to the touristic crowds. We felt it wouldn’t be long before anything that might be nice about the town will be overrun by all the things that ruin these natural paradises once they are discovered.

Galle

We finally were able to get train tickets. We booked a reserved 3rd class train from Ella back to Kandy. We planned a quick overnight stay with an early (6 AM) train back to Colombo the next morning. We planned to take the AC Highway bus from Colombo to our next destination of Galle on the southern coast.

 

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Galle Lighthouse

 

The train journey was indeed scenic. Our seats were comfortable but the car was really hot. Excitement filled the car for the first half hour but went noticeably quiet as the heat and slowness of the train took its toll. I looked around the car and most were sleeping before we passed the most scenic areas. The train moves at a glacial 20 km per hour and it gets hotter as it descends its way back to Kandy. A trip of a couple of hundred kilometers took more than 5 hours.

After a quick night in Kandy, we boarded a 1st class observation car for the conclusion of our train adventure. The car was comfortable and scenic but again most of the people slept for the majority of the ride.

We wanted to take the Highway bus from Colombo to Galle. The highway bus utilizes the toll road and takes one hour vs. 4 hours for the local bus. Again our poor planning cost us as we found out once we arrived that the highway bus does not leave from the bus station. After a 40-minute lung choking tuk-tuk ride through the Colombo morning commute we finally reached the bus. Perhaps it was worth it as the bus was comfortable, clean and fast-a first during our stay in Sri Lanka.

 

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Indian Ocean Sunset- Galle

 

We liked Galle from the moment we saw it. The combination of seeing the Indian Ocean and the quaintness of the Dutch Fort where we would make our home for 3 nights combined to make us forget the long drive we had taken from Ella.

Galle is really hot and walking the narrow alleyways inside the fort in the heat of the afternoon is rough. We found that morning and evening were the best times to wander the walls and explore the shops. A bit of a crowd gathers to watch the sunset each night near the lighthouse and we joined them for the nightly excitement.

Our hosts had unfortunately lost a son 12 years ago and they invited many relatives for a memorial service one night. Rhythmic chanting filled the house for more than 3 hours. We were asked to join the ceremony but felt we might be invading on the families privacy.

Our 3 days passed quickly. We enjoyed good food, chats with other travelers and a few opportunities to hear what locals thought about their countries rapid development in the last few years. We never left the fort and although the heat was ominous, we enjoyed our short visit.

Colombo

Although we stayed in Colombo for a total of 4 days, I know nothing about the city. No one seems to have a good opinion of the city and nearly everyone just uses it for transit. Before our departure, we elected a small jungle resort in the city of Negombo, closer to the airport and popular with transitting travelers. Our resort was located far from the beaches and restaurants and we enjoyed a few days of air conditioning and clean clothes. There was a nice pool outside of our room but we never visited, even opting to have some meals in the room.

 

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Sri Lanka Tea Train

 

Sri Lanka is a developing country that has become popular with European travelers to beat the colds of northern climates. It is a beautiful country, with wildlife, deserted sandy beaches, pretty mountains and a varied climate. The people are friendly and seem like they are anticipating better days ahead. They are happy to be out from under colonial powers but worry about corrupt government and the return of foreign powers. The infrastructure needs some work to handle more visitors and development is rapid and seems haphazardly planned.

We did a poor job of planning this part of our journey and it affected our time in Sri Lanka. There are many things to enjoy here but I felt we did not take proper advantage of them. 3 weeks is plenty of time to tour the country and our lack of preparation hurt us. Hopefully with some time to reflect the struggles will pass and only nice memories will remain.

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Seven Straight Years of Travel

In July of 2011, we made the decision to leave our comfortable jobs in Northern California to see the world. We had always enjoyed travel and for years had dreamed of traveling full time. Careers, family and other commitments took precedence over adventure and we could never really find the right time to make our move. Our youngest son had recently left for college and had made the decision to stay at school for the summer. Our house felt empty and we realized our lives had become routine. We really wanted an adventure. We wondered if now was the time.

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Istanbul, Turkey

We weren’t old enough for traditional retirement. We had been good savers for several years and had a decent amount of savings. We both had a small pension from previous jobs. We definitely weren’t rich but if we could live modestly and watch our money, we felt we could manage. We exchanged luxuries for experiences and made our decision to take on the world.

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Fenghuang, China

We would travel slowly, staying in cities and towns for longer periods than most tourists have time for. Hopefully, it would give us an opportunity to observe local life in a unique way. We would live in small apartments and cook the majority of our meals at home. We would live like residents instead of visitors.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

Within a fast-paced two weeks, we had rented our house, sold or given away most of our things and put a few collected treasures in storage. Our children thought we were crazy, although growing up as travelers themselves, probably understood. We packed our car with the minimum amount of things we thought we needed and headed south to Mexico, our first destination.

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Mendocino, California

It was challenging in ways we never expected. Languages, customs and traditions were different. We found we needed to rely on each other more than we ever had in our lives. Every day was different from the last. Food, weather and lifestyle were radically different. We did not have the large budget that most tourists use to overcome challenges. With patience, we began to discover that most everyone in the world has more commonalities than differences. Our map skills got better and our world expanded. Eventually, we went further south, crossing into Guatemala and the rest of Central America. We spent almost two years traveling over 30,000 miles of some of the roughest roads in North America. Stopped only by the end of the road in Panama, we saw the biggest towns and smallest villages and learned a new language and a new lifestyle. We learned to live for experiences and not possessions.

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Essouira, Morocco

We did miss our children. They enjoyed coming to visit as often as they could. We found inexpensive flights are plentiful these days. Because we had rented apartments and cooked at home it was not that expensive to have them spend time with us wherever we were. Video calls and Facebook allowed us to stay connected better than we ever expected.

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Rome, Italy

Eventually, we realized that our new lifestyle could take us nearly anywhere we wanted to go. With the use of websites like Airbnb, we found affordable apartments easily accessible everywhere in the world. Discount airfares were plentiful with minimal shopping. Our world suddenly was greatly expanded. We put our car in storage and left for Asia. We learned to use public transportation and frankly walked the shoes off our feet. We literally learned to live with what we could carry. If we couldn’t fit it into our backpacks, we didn’t need it.

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Procida, Italy

Europe seemed unattainable because of costs. We found that by choosing small apartments and taking advantage of excellent public transportation we could get by even on our small budget. Of course, we loved seeing France, Italy and Spain but the surprises came when we saw less touristed but equally interesting countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine. Even exotic locations of Turkey, Morocco and Israel were possible for us.

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Sedona, Arizona

 

Photographs became our main souvenir of the places we visited. While we still enjoyed perusing the many markets we encountered, our vagabond lifestyle did not permit us to buy as often as we would have liked. We enjoyed looking at photographs of the most beautiful places on earth and figuring out ways that we could capture the images for ourselves. Rather than countries leading us to photographs, we found the photographs leading us to countries. We spend many an evening on a pristine hill overlooking unbelievable cityscapes transformed as sunsets illuminate our newly discovered surroundings.

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Joshua Tree National Park

We have just begun our 8th consecutive year of travel. Despite our glacial pace, we have now traveled to 47 countries on 5 continents and have no intention of stopping. We have returned home for major occasions such as weddings, graduations and a few celebrations and even had an opportunity to see some of our own country. The farther we travel the more we realize there is to see. The world is an incredible place and our life would not have been complete without sampling a good chunk of it. Our lives have forever been changed for the better. We appreciate what we have seen and look forward to each new place with great anticipation. Isn’t that how life is meant to be lived?

Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan

Mad Dogs and Tourists

We arrived on the tarmac at Siem Reap airport just after dark on a warm, humid night much as we had 14 years before. It had been a quick flight from Hanoi. After 6 weeks in frozen China and a month in the pleasant temperatures of Vietnam the heat shocked us. We and our fellow passengers quickly stripped off sweaters and coats that most had brought on the plane.

 
While our arrival was much the same, it was quickly apparent that not much else was. Cambodia was not on most people’s travel radar in 2004. The immigration area of the terminal was much smaller at the time. We vividly remembered the row of baggy suited officers sitting in a row with grim faces who scrutinized our passports and begrudgingly passed them to the next equally rumpled staffer for approval. None ever made eye contact and all seemed imposing.

 

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Ta Prohm

 
Now replaced by a modern chaotic facility filled with foreign faces packing the roped queues, the officials seemed more interested in collecting the visa on arrival fee of US 30 dollars each than scrutinizing passports. No dollars in your wallet? No problem, the convenient ATM spits out crisp 100 dollar bills right at the counter.

 
Just as we had bee 14 years before, we were met by a tuk-tuk and quickly transported down the bumpy road toward town. Other than the tuk-tuk, nothing else was the same. What was once a backwater town of mostly dirt roads is now a bustling city of bright lights, paved roads and every kind of diversion a tourist could think of. Massive hotels line the airport road, interspersed by restaurants, bars, nightclubs and massage parlors all doing brisk business to large crowds of westerners and Chinese tourist groups. Everything was still rough around the edges but nothing was as we remembered.

 

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Bayon Temple

 
Of course everyone who visits Siem Reap is probably interested in visiting the amazing Angkor temples. Single and multi-day passes are available but are quite expensive. Where once we were limited by time, money is our current limiter and so we selected the mid-priced 3 day pass. We limited our visit this time to specific temples and were primarily interested in photographing them.

 
The weather was so shockingly hot we had trouble leaving the air conditioner in our modern hotel. So much so that it took 7 days to use our 3 day pass. We thought that by visiting in the late afternoons we could avoid the crowds and have better light to photograph the temples. Not so. Where Angkor was once off the beaten track for normal tourists it is now firmly on the mass tourism circuit. Angkor Wat is the most spectacular of the sites and we chose it as our first stop. The crowds were huge, all groups and wilted single travelers. Everyone seemed sweated through and most were in various stages of fatigue. Everything from slightly slowed down to those who had given up and were just sitting in any shade they could find. The site was still amazing, but it was so overwhelmed that it was difficult to really enjoy. Even photography was challenging as every view was swarmed by selfie taking singles or group posers in front of anything attractive.

 

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Angkor Wat

 
Over the days we also visited the Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm and a few of the smaller temples near Ta Prohm. The smallest of the temples were the most fun as they were the only ones where we could beat the crowds and have any type of feeling that the original explorers must have felt.

 
On the days not spent at the temples we made our way around town. On our earlier visit we had trouble finding much to do. The famous backpacker watering hole “Angkor What?” was once located on a dirt road with nothing around it. It is now surrounded by hundreds of brightly lit restaurants and bars on the so called “Pub Street”. Any type of food from Mexican to Italian to Japanese can now be found in the ceiling fan cooled patio restaurants along the streets. Bars, from tiny local joints to laser lit discos, fill up the rest of the area. Three night markets surround the area and plenty of street vendors take up any other space not used. We found a few less obtrusive places to enjoy a few beers, but mostly found cheap and delicious food in other areas of town nearer to our hotel. We did get a chance to visit the classic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor which was the original hotel in town and enjoyed a beer from the veranda overlooking the river at the Foriegn Correspondents Club.

 

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Ta Prohm

 
After a little more than a week we decided to move on. Prior to arriving in Cambodia, we hadn’t made any specific plans past Angkor and didn’t really know where to go. Some people we met seemed to enjoy Battambang and so we decided to catch a bus there. We were told it was less touristy than Siem Reap and we looked forward to the opportunity to ditch the tourist crowds and perhaps get to see some of the “real” Cambodia.

 
Battambang was surprisingly larger than Siem Reap. To be honest we didn’t find much to do. At one time their was the so called “bamboo train” that was popular to ride. The railway has been repaired for real trains and it no longer runs. A bat cave looked interesting but proved to be quite distant and we decided not to visit. The bat cave has millions of bats that leave the cave at sunset and might have been fun. Most tours combine it with the nearby “Killing Caves” from the Khmer Rouge time and we really did not want to visit any of these grim reminders of the past.

 

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Angkor Temples

 
It didn’t really leave much to see. The heat increased but we still managed to spend some time walking around town and along the river in the cooler evenings. We were surprised to find lots of excellent bargain priced restaurants and spent many morning, afternoons and evenings in the quiet cafes enjoying delicious Khmer food along with many western choices. A few art galleries in town were interesting and we spent some time visiting.

 
Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh. After another long bus ride through the countryside we arrived to this modern Metropolis of about 7 million. Hotels were popping up everywhere and the city gave off a look of a combination of Bangkok and Hanoi. We stayed outside of the tourist area around the river and very close to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

 
Our room was on the 9th floor so we had excellent views over the city from our balcony. Because Tuol Sleng is a popular stop with visitors many restaurants have opened in the area and it was convenient to get out to restaurants during the day.

 

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Angkor Temples

 
In the interest of truth in travel, we didn’t do much in Phnom Penh and probably wasted an opportunity. After 12 weeks of backpacking around China, Vietnam and Cambodia we were spent. Every time we got motivated to go anywhere the heat deterred us from anything but going out to eat. We found a nice expat bar close to the hotel where many of the young westerners in town for work gather in the evenings for beer and we spent some time hanging out there. We found long lunches and dinners in the local cafes to be relaxing and to be enough time spent out of the hotel during the hot days and evenings.

 
Even though we were 1 block from the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and could literally see it from our balcony, we chose not to visit. Cambodia seems to be moving quickly away from it’s tragic past and we thought perhaps we wanted to remember the country for what we saw during our visit and not for what it was in the late 1970’s.

 

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Bayon Temple

 
Unfortunately, I feel we may look back on Cambodia as a missed opportunity. Of all the countries we have visited in the last 7 years this is the one we learned the least about. It is partly because of the way we have been travelling for the last few months. Living in hotels and eating in restaurants is not our preferred way of travel. Especially in countries like Cambodia we felt as if we were always surrounded by other tourists and were confined to see things designed for them. Angkor was still impressive but we found it overrun. Everyone seemed to speak English and Cambodians seem very friendly and good natured so we should have been able to have some good conversations. But we didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the heat or travel burnout or just a general lack of ambition.

 
Cambodia has changed a lot in the 14 years since we first visited. I seems like a country moving in the right direction. The people seem happy, but to be honest I leave the country not really knowing for sure. We have one more country to visit on this Asian leg of our endless journey. It will be cooler and perhaps we will find our enthusiasm again. I hope so.

 

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Ta Prohm

 

Honest Smiles

There are places we know we will return to. Like unfinished love affairs, they live in the corners of our mind, waiting to be rekindled. Over time the images move through our dreams, usually altered by time and further experiences. As we add distance the colors may become brighter, the smells more intense and the tastes more vibrant. We find these places returning to our conscience thought when we discuss travels or tell stories of our earlier life. We recall them with smiles on our faces and excitement in our voices. We realize we would like to have another opportunity to see if our memories match reality. Could actuality match the misty recollections we visualize in our thoughts?

 

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Hoi An Sunset

 

We traveled to Vietnam in 2004. We were younger and far less experienced travelers then. We moved faster, collecting places and countries with a rapidity that didn’t always allow for much introspection. Occasionally a place would resonate louder than others but lack of time, family needs and work commitments didn’t allow us the opportunity to fully see the destinations we had traveled to. The deep greens of the rice paddies, the colors of the rivers, the warmth of the humid air and the smiles of the people stayed in our thoughts. We wanted to return but other places called more aggressively for our attention. It took us 14 years to have the time and opportunity to return. As we sat in the chilly winter mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, we realized the time had come to see if our dreams were true.

 

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Trang An Sunset

 

We caught a flight from Kunming, China to Hoi An, Vietnam….
Honest smiles…
Sitting on our balcony early on our first day we already felt it. The warmth of the cloudy morning felt wonderful. For the first time in 2 months, our skin was not covered by extra layers for warmth. Watching the town wake up was instantly enchanting, Motorscooters filled the morning, busily taking adults, children, packages and even pets to destinations unseen from our sidestreet perch. We felt a contagious energy that caused us to immediately take notice.

 

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Japanese Bridge- Hoi An

 

Hoi An seemed the perfect place to begin our exploration of Vietnam. Perhaps a calm before the busyness began. We spent 6 days wandering the streets enjoying the cool of the mornings and evenings and happily welcoming the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.
We wandered through the riverside market, enjoyed relaxed coffee filled afternoons in cafes hidden down quiet alleyways, and evening strolls along the river or food cart lined backstreets. The warm golden glow from the yellow buildings of the French inspired old town was gorgeous and cast a wonderful light on sunset walks through the narrow streets. The food was excellent. Watching the tourist boats at sunset from the bridge that crosses the tiny river was captivating. Thousands of tiny candles flickered amongst the boats on the water as the lantern-lit buildings reflected in the water.

 

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Hoi An

 

Unlike our earlier visit, the town has grown and has definitely been discovered by the tourist hoards that overfill the most popular shopping areas. We found that, with a little effort, it was easy enough to still find the honest smiles of the local people we so fondly remembered from our dreams. We felt there was a distinct possibility of this city being overrun by poor development and mass tourism. Still, whether we were in our hotel, walking on the back streets or just watching the local population from a cafe on a tree-lined street, we sensed a happy people who were satisfied with their situation. When we smiled, people smiled back. When we talked to people they warmly responded with good words and thoughts. We found Hoi An to be the perfect start for our journey.

Ha-noise…
Well developed streets are common in any city in the world. You may find a market, a butcher shop, a 30 seat restaurant or a motorcycle repair shop. Some may have a poultry farm, barber shop, a daycare and a construction company. A rare few may even have a seafood company. I found all of these on our street outside our hotel in Hanoi. The street was actually a 40-meter alleyway and none of these enterprises had a permanent storefront or office. They existed in and on the alley and all did a bustling business.

 

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Hoan Kiem Lake

 

As we made our way around the city, we realized our alleyway was not at all uncommon. The wide sidewalks of the Old Quarter of Hanoi are filled with makeshift entrepreneurs. Motorcycles are parked by attendants on every available space. The trees that line the streets provide shade to portable plastic seat restaurants turning out tasty treats of every kind from single charcoal grills tended by the most efficient cooks anywhere we have traveled.

The traffic is overwhelming and not mastered without effort. With time, what appears like madness becomes manageable. The motorcycles are like droplets in a neverending flow of a great river. The occasional car or bus is interspersed in the tide. Bicycles, trishaws and cart vendors fill in any available space that might remain.

On first attempt, crossing this rushing river feels more like running with the bulls than crossing a street. It doesn’t seem even Moses could part this sea. You learn that to cross, you must become your own droplet and carefully migrate your way in small increments.Being aware overcomes being scared. Newcomers are easy to spot by their inability to manage. When mastered you feel as a bullfighter must when he is in the ring. He must trust his ability and manage his fear. Once mastered, you can begin to enjoy this city of constant movement. It is unique and beautiful and over the 10 days we stayed here on 3 different occasions during our travels in the north and it became our favorite. We learned to love the city for what it is, an energy-filled city as fascinating and exciting as any.

 

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Trang An

 

New discoveries….
We arrived by bus to the first destination we had not previously visited. A three-hour bus ride took us through first the outskirts of Hanoi and eventually rice fields in the process of being planted. We had planned a homestay in the countryside near the city of Ninh Binh. The bus driver said he knew the area and would drop us off near our home for the next few days. We eventually passed an area of beautiful limestone karst that jutted abruptly from rice fields. Workers with conical hats maneuvered buffalo pulled plows in some fields while large groups of others hand planted each new rice sprout. It was gorgeous and was the perfect picture of Vietnam we had been seeking.

The driver spotted a sign that listed our homestay at a crossroads. The sign said 0 kilometers and he indicated this was the place. All we saw was an ancient graveyard surrounded by towering palm trees in the middle of flooded rice fields. Before we had time to gather our thoughts that something must be wrong, our bags were unloaded from the bus and the bus drove on towards its destination.

 

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Mua Caves- Ninh Binh

 

We walked through the arched entrance to the graveyard and didn’t know what to do. We have stayed in some crazy places in our time, but we saw nothing that looked like the pictures we had seen on the internet. Luckily a man on a scooter came along and using sign language indicated this was indeed not the place and pointed us down the road. It seemed a long way to walk and luckily a passing motorist stopped and asked if we needed help. He knew of our homestay and thankfully said he would take us there. He drove us down several dusty roads into a small enclave of recently built cement block houses. We were thankful we didn’t have to walk.

Our host met us and after a refreshing freshly squeezed welcome drink he took us farther into his property. We passed a wonderful garden filled with fresh vegetables of every imaginable type and lush foliage including papaya and banana trees. He had built several brick cottages with verandas that held hammocks and beautiful flowers. The interior was equally as nice with wooden floors, a dining table and comfortable beds. It was perfect.

 

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Bai Dinh TempleĀ 

 

We spent our days riding bicycles in the surrounding area. A peaceful ride on a cool afternoon took us to the spectacular Trang An area. A boatsman rowed us through scenic waterways that meandered through the lush green karsts. The waterway led through 3 caves, each leading into a more scenic area. Temples were built on flatlands and islands and multicolored birds frolicked in the reeds. It was seriously one of the most incredible natural areas we have ever been.

Another day we went to Mua Caves and climbed the seemingly endless steps to the top of a mountain that gave commanding views over the entire area. The back side of the mountain provided a perfect view of the Tam Coc river area in the distance. On our third day, we braved renting a motor scooter to take us on a more distant journey. The nearly deserted roads made for easy riding and the cool day was perfect for visiting the spectacular Bai Dinh temple. Judging from the massive parking area we were lucky to be one of the few visitors on this nearly deserted day. Later we even had time to visit the backpacker haven of Tam Coc.

 

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Tam Coc

 

We woke early on our last morning and waited for our onward bus at the end of our dirt road. We were slightly shocked that the building next to where we were waiting proved to be the village slaughterhouse. The sounds were slightly frightening as many goats lost their lives as we waited in the still dark morning for our bus. It seemed amazing that a visit that started in a graveyard and ended outside of a slaughterhouse would still be remembered by us as a scenic wonderland that we will not soon forget.

How-long Bay…
Halong Bay may be the best known and most visited destination in Vietnam. Whether a backpacker or luxury traveler, most itineraries include a visit. When we visited in 2004 the town of Halong Bay was small with a couple of recently built modest luxury hotels and several junk style boats that took visitors on day-long tours of the spectacular natural area.

 

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Halong Bay

 

That is not what we found in 2018. Halong Bay is a quickly developed sprawling city of large hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, malls and a huge bridge. The small amount of junks that once plied the bay have been replaced by a massive fleet of hundreds of medium size cruise ships carrying huge amounts of package tourist groups on multiple night excursions around the congested bay.
The skies were cloudy and we felt we wanted to wait for a photogenic day to take our cruise. We checked into a medium size, brand new hotel some distance from the main central area. The price was cheap and many small local oriented restaurants were nearby. The forecast showed a weather change in the next few days and we decided to see what the town offered.

 

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Halong Bay Morning

 
The Lunar New Year (Tet) was rapidly approaching the following week. Houses and business were decorated with banners, flags and flowering trees. Small businesses were closing shop and it was obvious people were thinking of vacations rather than business. Most residents of Halong Bay are not originally from the local area and normally return to home villages for the holidays. We checked on buses and were told it would be a tough ticket if we waited too long.
Finally, the weather broke and we booked our overnight cruise. A medium priced boat offered good food, karaoke, cooking classes and lots of drinking. We visited the same basic things we had seen in the past, a cave and a beach area, only now they were completely overrun by rude, drunken tour groups that frankly spoiled any natural beauty we may have seen.

 

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Halong Bay Sunset

 

Another night in the hotel and we booked the last bus back to Hanoi before Tet began. I came away with a disappointed feeling of the entire experience which was reminiscent of any number of once pristine natural locations (Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Waikiki, and part of Bali) that, in my opinion, have overdeveloped and seem to cater to the worst elements of tourism. The bay is still spectacular but seemed diminished by poor planning.

To the hills….
We celebrated Tet in Hanoi. The town was basically shut down and was in full celebration mode. Mixed generation families strolled Hoan Kiem lake enjoying ice cream and the cool weather. Roads were closed to traffic and musicians entertained the smiling population. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best clothes and all were involved in a happy conversation. Sitting by the lake, we were greeted by adults and children with smiles and kind words. The mood was contagious and while we were anxious to move on with our trip, our 3-day delay was some of the most enjoyable we spent on our trip.

 

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Rice Terraces- Sapa

 

Eventually, buses were again available and we made our plans to visit the northwestern hills of Vietnam. Sapa would be our base for several days. Sapa is famous for its rice terraces, traditional villages and cool weather. Unfortunately, the terraces were just recovering from a wet and snowy winter and the temperatures would be cold rather than cool. We knew it was not the optimum time to visit but felt we would be missing an opportunity to visit an area we had not seen before.

 

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Cat Cat Village- Sapa

 

A grueling 6-hour bus ride brought us to Sapa. While Hanoi was back to business, Sapa was still in full Tet celebration. People from surrounding villages were gathered in Sapa to enjoy their time off from their normal lives. The town was filled with villagers in wonderful traditional clothing, all gathered in groups in the lakeside park or central area of the small town.

Most visitors do some kind of trekking in the hills to visit outlying villages. We had planned to participate ourselves, but actually found we could have an “authentic” experience just staying in Sapa town. We spent our days sitting in the many restaurants, cafes and parks and just observing the environment of happy citizens enjoying their last few days of holiday.

We were able to visit a nearby village and we found it enjoyable but touristy in a good way. The rice terraces were indeed incredible even if not at their most beautiful. The roads and town were a bit rough around the edges but we enjoyed our stay immensely. We had conversations with Hmong villagers in the park and posed for many photos with the families. The easy pace and cool weather made our stay comfortable, relaxing and very interesting.

 

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Vietnam

We again had an amazing visit to a unique and beautiful country. It was not the country we had visualized over the years in our dreams. Like everywhere else in the world, time and progress have changed the country. We saw things we had seen before and we saw others that were new to us. No doubt while some of our future dreams will be altered from the past, they will not be diminished. I can’t say what the future will bring to Vietnam.

 

In our last few days in Vietnam, we spent a lot of time enjoying the peaceful area around Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. Sitting on a bench and enjoying the city as day turned to night was a great end to our trip. We sipped coffee by the cathedral and ate delicious food in the infinite amount of cafes.

 

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Vietnam

 
We had the pleasure of sharing a seat at the lake for an hour with a young woman who worked nearby. We spoke of our travels and her life. She grew up in a traditional village and had attended university in Hanoi. Afterward, she had stayed to pursue a career. She talked at length about her own battles of traditional family ties vs. a desire to move into the future. She had just visited her home for Tet and had experienced pressure to marry and start a family and perhaps even move back to help her family. She also felt a pressure from modern expectations of job, possessions and making the most of her hard earned degree. She seemed the perfect representation of the crossroads we witnessed Vietnam being at. Traditional culture vs. a modern future. I wished her luck with her journey and encouraged her to follow her heart. She smiled the smile I had so often seen so often on the faces of so many Vietnamese. An honest smile even in times of trouble or stress. I hope she, and Vietnam, will find the correct path forward. I want my dreams and hers to become reality.