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As a keen photographer and partial to South East Asian cuisine it was a real treat for Gary Harley from House of Travel Dunedin to revisit some of his favourite areas in Vietnam and Cambodia by land and river.
On arrival in Ho Chi Minh City we were transferred to the Caravelle, once the top hotel in Saigon. It has recently been refurbished once again establishing its place amongst its newer 5 star rivals. Oysters and champagne were on the menu but we opted for a night of Mojitos and Saigon Beer at the hotel's rooftop bar Saigon Saigon. A lovely hotel with all the expected features of a five star heritage property. Highly recommended and in a very central location for exploring the old city.
Earlier in the evening we embarked on a walking tour to experience the local street food. Neon lights, colourful food and exotic flavours could be found on every corner. It was particularly interesting wandering some of the side streets and seeing how the locals spent their evenings. We ended the walking tour at a local barbecue restaurant where the food is cooked on a hot plate at the table, delicious!
Up at sunrise to experience the city waking up and see the locals in the parks socialising and going about the morning exercise routines. It was quite odd to see several people playing badminton on the street outside a local medical clinic or a group of middle aged ladies working out at an aerobics class in the park.
We were driven from Saigon to the riverside town of My Tho, the departure point for our Mekong cruise. Driving time was approximately 1 hour. The cruise from My Tho to Phnom Penh in Cambodia was 4 days and 3 nights. This is the slow way of doing the trip as it can actually be done by speedboat in about 5 hours.
The first morning on board I was eager to catch the sunrise, so I was up at 6.00 am. Making my way on to the sun warmed deck and into the balmy morning breeze I sat outside the cabin and watched the early morning river traffic wake to the day as we slowly made our way up the river. Breakfast was a leisurely affair then up to the sundeck for coffee and a walk around the ship.
When we were not on an excursion the time was spent socialising with other passengers on the sun deck, looking for the coolest spot with a cold drink in hand. During the late afternoon some of us chose to seek the coolness of our cabin for a quick nap, I preferred to lounge up top and watch the sunset while sipping on my G&T. The evening began with cocktail hour on the sunset deck then dinner in the main dining room, this was a casual affair and attire was smart casual.
The experience on board our cruise was a very relaxing way to travel and an ideal interlude to include in any busy itinerary. Throughout the trip was enhanced by shore excursions. A typical day would be a morning visit to a small village like Cai Be and its colourful floating market followed in the afternoon by an excursion to Sa Dec via Vinh Long, along canals and backwaters to the market and the ancient house of Mr, Huyn Thuy Le, the 'lover' of Marguerite Duras, a famous French novelist.
Our fourth day on board we cruised into Phnom Penh. It appeared golden and sprawling on the banks of the Mekong with the morning sun glinting from the spires of the Royal Palace surrounded by a low rise developing city. The skyline was pierced by the occasional crane and a brand new glistening glass tower. A developing city financed by various world economies notably the Chinese and French. We docked at the main pier in the heart of the city. We had to wait on board the boat until Cambodian immigration gave us back our passports which took an hour longer than expected.
I wouldn't say a visit to the Killing Fields was a highlight in fact I would urge caution as it is quite a disturbing experience. The tour takes you out of the city to the fields where an estimated 1.7 million people were killed. It was here that the Khmer Rouge took their prisoners and butchered them piling them into mass graves. They were transported here after many had been held captive and tortured at the notorious prison camp S21. Unfortunately when you walk around the graves you are actually walking on the bodies as bones are clearly visible on the dirt walking paths.
The S21 complex is also part of this tour and in many ways is even more chilling than the Killing Fields as it displays images of tortured prisoners .Thankfully we had the rest of the afternoon off and checked into our hotel, the Patio Hotel and Urban Spa. This was rated three and a half star and was modern and very nice with a wonderful roof top infinity pool. The location was relatively central although we did take tuk tuks to get to the main riverside eateries, we dined that evening at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club or FCC as it is locally known.
The next day we flew to Siem Reap. We arrived into Siem Reap and were met by our guide. We were too early to check in to the hotel so decided to have lunch on the way and picked a random cafe which offered an excellent choice of Vietnamese and Western food. Our hotel the Victoria Angkor Hotel and Spa was the best on the tour. It was a beautiful colonial design complemented with outstanding facilities including the salt water swimming pool, extensive spa menu, dining options including the French L’ Escale or the Le Bistrot all day dining and the cosy Le Explorateur Bar.
Our exploration began with a visit to the Angkor National Museum providing an interactive insight into the history behind Angkor. I hadn't been to the museum on my previous visit to Siem Reap and did find this a very interesting and worthwhile inclusion. The museum is housed in a modern building and had numerous artefacts recovered from the various temple sites and assisted in understanding the history of the temples. The museum has a very good shop displaying quality locally made handicrafts.
Our next visit was to the Artisans' D'Angkor work shops. This is a fantastic facility as it employs talented young local craftspeople who are dedicated to the preservation of traditional Khmer skills in silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting, but it is also an organisation committed to promote the development of individuals and secure their future by the means of education and welfare. The Artisans' D'Angkor sells the crafts through their onsite shop, unfortunately the prices charged were very high comparative to other local vendors.
That evening we had a dinner of traditional Khmer food and an Apsara Dance show of traditional Cambodian dance at Por Cuisine Restaurant. The restaurant was modern and the food well-presented however we ate from a set menu and we had already sampled much of what was on offer at previous meals. The dance show, although colourful and athletic, was very "touristy", ok for a night out but not essential.
The main temples are a 15 minute drive from Siem Reap and before entering the area all visitors must purchase the Angkor Pass from the very well organised check point on the main road to the temples. We began the day visiting Angkor Thom entering via the South Gate and the Bayon complex. The vast area of the Angkor Thom ruins, contains many stone temples and other features to explore.
The city has five monumental gates (one in each wall plus an extra in the eastern wall), 20m high and decorated with stone elephant trunks and the king's favourite motif, the four faces of Avalokiteshvara. I would suggest that you go early in the morning to the temples as it is much cooler and less crowded. If at all possible avoid mid day as it is extremely hot and crowded and also quite physical as some of the temples require a steep climb up many steps.
The Bayon Temple (circa 1190) is a Buddhist temple but retains elements of Hindu cosmology and imagery. Standing in the exact centre of the walled city, it represents the intersection of heaven and earth. It is known for its enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara and its extraordinary bas-reliefs.
Angkor Wat is the best preserved example of Khmer architecture in Cambodia and is so grand in design that some rank it among the Seven Wonders of the World. It appears on the Cambodian national flag, a very rare instance of a flag incorporating an image of a building.
As it was our last night it was party time and our farewell dinner. We chose a restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, the AHA Restaurant, superb setting and fantastic modern Cambodian cuisine. The location was also right next to Pub Street the 'happening' area for Siem Reap nightlife and the home of the 50 cent beers, great way to end a fantastic journey!