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Mesmerising remains of the Khmer empire

Ta Nei

The Angkor temples near Siem Reap in Cambodia are the remnants of the centre of the Khmer empire, which dominated the region from India to the south of Vietnam from about 800 to 1400 AD.

The best known and biggest, Angkor Wat is one of about 40 stone or brick complexes that have survived all these centuries. Just about everything else, including the royal palaces, was built of wood and rotted away centuries ago.

I visited Siem Reap in early February, when the weather is relatively cool. That means it’s also the busiest time of year. However it’s still possible to visit most of the monuments when they are less crowded.

The massive Angkor Wat, for example, is busy at sunrise, quieter later in the morning and early afternoon, when the many group tours head back to Siem Reap for lunch, and busier again when the tour buses return. A ‘temple mountain’, Phnom Bakheng, is packed with tourists at sunset, but was almost deserted during my early-afternoon visit. Ta Nei, shown in the photo with this post, isn’t accessible by bus and is apparently always quiet.

The Angkor temples are awe-inspiring – on a par with the pyramids of Egypt, because as well as the sheer grandeur of the temples you have the countless the carvings and bas reliefs that adorn many of them. Gigantic scale is combined with beautiful detail. As you wander through the temples successive vistas of carvings, statues, pillars and galleries are revealed.

Some temples haven’t been reclaimed from the jungle, and lie in photogenic ruins – Ta Nei is one of these overgrown monuments. Clambering over giant blocks of stone, or between huge trees that have roots entwined around walls and roofs, definitely brings out your inner Indiana Jones.

There are sobering moments too, if you pause to think about the countless streets, buildings and communities which surrounded these religious monuments, and which have completely disappeared.

And there are sobering signs of far more recent history. The genocidal Khmer Rouge only held power for four years, from 1975 to 1979, but there are many reminders of their regime and the subsequent long years of civil war.

For example at the entrance to the Bang Melea temple, across the road from a village, large signs on other side of the path proclaim that the area has been cleared of landmines.

At the spectacular Bayon temple (it was used as a location in one of the Tomb Raider films) I overhead a conversation between an American family and their guide. ‘Why is the ground bumpy?’ asked the young daughter, pointing to some grassy trenches. The guide explained the temple was used as a military base by the Khmer Rouge, who dug out the trenches to use as battle stations.

At another temple, Banteay Kdei, I chatted to a man who was selling rubbings taken from the bas-reliefs, which are on sale around many of the temples. His name is Houn Sokheng and he told me he had established a school for orphans in Siem Reap. I later looked at his website (http://www.hoacambodia.org/) and discovered that he himself is an orphan. Both of his parents were killed in the Khmer Rouge years.Tuk tuk

Tuk tuk

The advice on when to visit different temples was given to me by Pros, the tuk tuk driver I hired each day. A tuk tuk in Siem Reap is a motorbike with a detachable cabin at the back for passengers. Pros was pleasant, reliable and helpful and I would certainly recommend him to other visitors. His email address is phinravuth@yahoo.com and his mobile phone is +855 (0)9745 18555. At left is a photo of his tuk tuk.

I stayed at an establishment called the Kool Hotel (http://www.koolhotel.com/), which belied it naff name: the room was spacious, clean, comfortable and quiet and the staff were friendly and helpful. A substantial cooked breakfast was included in the price – just what you need before a day trekking around, through and over the Angkor monuments.





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Travel through time in Ha Giang

Limestone mountains near Dong Van

I recently made two trips to Ha Giang Province, in the far north east of Vietnam. Both felt like taking trips back in time.

This mountainous region, which borders China, is starkly beautiful, but also very remote, and very poor. The economic growth in much of the rest of Vietnam, which this year pushed Vietnam officially into the ranks of middle-income countries, has not affected this frontier region.

Spectacular limestone mountains tower over narrow valleys. Every possible patch of land is used for cultivation, including corn that’s grown on steep, steep mountainsides.

Most people work the land, and many of them are from one of the 22 ethnic minorities who live in the region. Most don’t wear modern clothing – their striking traditional garments are also their work clothes, worn every day, and not finery put on for weddings and other special occasions.

You see splashes of bright colour – reds, greens, blues, pinks – in fields in the valleys and on mountainsides, where women toil. The men are much more sombrely dressed; men from the Hmong minority group, for example, wear black caps, black Chinese-style jackets with Mandarin collars and black trousers.

You don’s see much modern dress in the countryside, and you also don’t much 21st century, or even 20th century, technology.

There are few cars, and far fewer motorbikes than in other parts of Vietnam. Women walk home from the fields carrying their work knives made from a single piece of iron (curled at one end to form the handle) in wooden holders sitting on belts at the small of their backs. Men plough the fields using buffalo. Irrigation pipes that carry water overhead across roads are made of wood, and supported by spindly and knobbly wooden posts cut down from trees in the vicinity. .I did see a few mobile phones, though, which are very cheap to run in Vietnam.

To give an idea of cash incomes, corn wine is made by local farmers (and drunk by some to excess – alcohol abuse is a problem). Half a litre of corn wine (in a recycled plastic water bottle) bought in a restaurant cost 10,000 dong – about 50 cents. And that’s with the restaurant’s mark-up.

I saw women almost bent double under loads of firewood, carried on foot to sell in the local towns. Others could scarcely be seen under huge piles of greenery, which was probably being gathered as fodder for farm animals. Wood, piled teepee-style, was also on sale outside farm houses at the side of the road.

Many of those farm houses reminded me of small 19th century settlers cottages in Australia, consisting of one or two rooms with a veranda at the front and window on each side of the door.

Foreigners need a permit to travel in the province, which is obtained in the provincial capital of Ha Giang, about six or seven hours’ drive from Hanoi on Highway Two.

From there most of the small but increasing number of foreign visitors travel across the 575 square-kilometre Dong Van Stone Plateau to the town of Dong Van, which is only a few kilometres from the Chinese border.

Just last October the plateau was added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Global Network of National Geoparks. One of its breathtaking sights is the Quan Ba Pass, about two hours’ drive from Ha Giang. It overlooks a valley ringed by eerily cone-shaped hills, two of which, according to the sign at the pass, are called the Fairy Bosoms.

Dong Van market

In Dong Van the bustling Sunday market, to which people from the surrounding countryside flock to buy, sell and socialise, is almost medieval.

Women in their bright clothes, pannier style baskets on their backs, shop and chat to friends. The pannier baskets are also on sale, as are local vegetables (carried on foot by farmers for several hours to get to the market), brooms made from sheafs of dried rice, colourful fabric and trimmings for women’s clothes, packets of seeds and cheap household goods and clothes made in China.

One woman carries a big duck under her arm. Two men carry a live pig suspended from a pole, heading for the pig market in a street near the main market. Looming over the market is a limestone hill so steep it’s almost a wall.

Note: one of my trips to Ha Giang was with an independent motorbike tour guide, Michael Hue. To find out more about motorbike tours to Ha Giang and other regions of the north of Vietnam email him on go-to-man-in-vietnam@hotmail.com or check his website at http://motorbiketoursvietnam.com 

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