160921 Siem Reap

Today is ‘temple day’. Siem Reap is the city you must come through to visit the many temples of Cambodia. An archeologist’s dream. After a bit of a disorganised breakfast, we get into smaller buses to make our way to ticketing counter for our photos to be taken and then printed on our 3 day $US40 pass for the duration of our stay here in this very busy city. I would have to say it is the only ticket I have purchased that has my photo on it. They say this saves people transferring the tickets to someone else for ‘recycled’ use. Good on them.

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Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.

The day looks a little damp. During the early morning, there was a large tropical thunderstorm which brought on the humidity big time. Out came the umbrellas and raincoats when we arrived at the first and most important temple, Angkor Wat. The rain stopped soon after but by the time we completed our 2 hour visit, we were bathed in sweat from the humidity. This temple is amazing in that it becomes part of you, especially if you return for another visit. Even though no-one lives there, the knowledge you gain from a good guide stays with you forever. In many ways, in my view, the structure is much more involved and detailed than the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Building a a structure out of large heavy stone and then sculpturing the shapes and windows with fancy frames by hand must have been a long tedious job. However, all was complete within 37 years. Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the masterpiece of Khmer architecture.

Close by Angkor Wat is Bayon Temple. This temple is one of its own kind with many faces of Buddha carved into the large stone blocks.

The distinction between architecture and sculpture disappears. Despite its ruined condition and the undoubted architectural problems caused when a third level was superimposed on the second, cramping the courtyards and galleries, it retains an extraordinarily enigmatic and exotic power. The level of artistic creativity in evidence here is awesome, with richly carved bas-reliefs and a forest of 54 towers showing the heads of Buddha that significantly resemble Jayaverman VII himself.

Many of the temples in the area require steady feet as you jump from stone block to stone block. We were fortunate this visit in that there was no thunderous storm with torrential downpours every 5 minutes. If you enjoy counting, there are 216 faces of Buddha in Bayon Temple.

We came back into Siem Reap for a 4 course lunch at a comfortable restaurant. Our tour director put some chilli slices into his soup. I ventured into this procedure just to ‘try it’. The slice was not in the soup for too long at all, but oh boy. What a difference 30 seconds of chilli in a soup makes. It became HOT!

After a early afternoon nap, we departed on another excursion for the late afternoon. This was to Ta Prohm. The trees are slowly asserting their rights over the crumbling monuments of rubble. It is fascinating how, from just a tiny seed, great trees develop ‘tentacles’ that spread across the stone building-like structures. It’s a great place to take photos.

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Our evening was free, and a group of us walked to the nearby night market and ‘pub street’. Lots of lights and loud music filled the streets, not forgetting the ever present tuk tuk driver harassing you to board his ‘machine of invention’, some with silk padded seating. I suggested to the group to ‘come this way’. Not far and we found a gemstone shop with a convincing seller who convinced the ladies to each by precious gemstones mined in Cambodia. He had the machine to test the stones for authenticity, so his wares were definitely worth buying. I asked him he should pay me spotters fee but that didn’t happen.

Tomorrow very early at 4:30am, we will be woken to board the coach to see the sunrise back at Angkor Wat.

Home Stay – Sapa Valley Style

Staying in someone else’s home is always a bit daunting. You don’t know whether the floor creeks so loud, that the householders wake up, and you’re always afraid you just may not find the light switch once you find the bathroom. But think of doing that in a completely different country; like Vietnam and, in the famous Sapa Valley.

After the long muddy walk down into the base of the valley, in the rainy season, you meet your hosts and chat a little. In our case, the hosts didn’t know any English and we, of course didn’t know any Vietnamese.  Fortunately, our guide was Vietnamese and was able to translate for us in our conversation with the members of the family.

The host’s elderly mother was using a grinding wheel to crush homegrown rice to make spring rolls for the evening meal. The little daughter was amused as I took video of her and her pets and then showed the moving pictures from the camera.

Take a moment to think of all the luxuries we have in a western world and mull over the idea of enjoying a home stay experience in Vietnam yourself for your next holiday. Then come in to see Lyn and get more information on how to get to this little village in the amazing Sapa Valley.

 

111006 Hue Motor Bike Tour

At the end of our group tour in 2011, 90% of the folk voted the 5 hour Motor Bike Tour in Hue as their most exciting experience of the trip. There were various stops along the way but one of the interesting stops was when we visited a lady who was making a traditional hat. She had been affected by the agent orange sprayed during, what the Vietnamese call, the American War. Parts of her limbs and digits were missing or not working properly, but this did not prevent her taking up this ancient art. You’ll have to do the tour to see her.

Here’s just a 2 minute taste of the motor bike tour.

111011 Tam Coc River Cruise

Tam Coc River is south of Hanoi in the Ninh Binh region of Vietnam and has been Heritage Listed. Take a look at this video and enjoy the method of rowing a boat; hard work for the amateur indeed. But the scenery is different to what one would expect in Asia with glass smooth, clear water.

140327 Parkroyal Penang Resort

For those who have ‘been to Bali”, done Fiji or tried Phuket, Penang is an interesting alternative. This is an island connected by a long bridge to mainland Malaysia. To travel to Penang, take a flight to the now famous Kuala Lumpur, with a short flight to Penang or, fly to Singapore and change aircraft for the one-hour flight to Penang International Airport.

Our transfer met us at the airport and made sure we were comfortable for the one-hour drive, the length of the island, to our hotel in the northern district of Batu Feringgi. One investment the Malaysian Government may like to take up, is a freeway from the airport to the holiday resorts in the north – it would be a great asset to have, especially for the fly-in tourists.

The traffic is busy but we are told that during the week, traffic is less chaotic than on weekends. Arriving anywhere during school holidays always means that many locals are on the road too.

We are staying at the Parkroyal Penang Resort situated on the edge of the bay. There are a number of other resorts close by, but the established surrounds of Parkroyal are more inviting.  Palms offer plenty of shade beside the pools and the grounds are well kept. You can enjoy the tropical breezes near the shore while watching the water activities from your basket cacoon or lay back lounge.

The hotel was built in the early nineties with a furnishings upgrade in 2002. Hallway carpet was replaced in 2013.  The rooms, although ample in size, need an upgrade of sorts, really. The bed is huge. It’s interesting to still see designated smoking areas around the hotel, but I am sure that will change. Breakfast is in the very busy Tamarind Brasserie (a notice at the exit from the lifts tell you how busy breakfast is – much like city link in Melbourne – and daytime snacks can be purchased from the Cool Bananas Cafe.

There is a bar between the adult pool and the beach and all the staff are friendly, efficient and helpful. The dedicated children’s pool, has a couple of water slides to keep the active ones away from the adult pool. The children’s day care, the koko-nut klub, is attended by carers with many activities available for the toddler age group.

Water activities are busy during the day especially the para-sailing option. You can water ski, or ride the biscuit behind a speed boat, or zoom away on the jet skis. We spend most of our days, just lazing on a deck chair soaking up the sun and watching the parasailers take off and return on an eventful, and often high, ‘look around the bay’ venture. There are “interruptions” to the day when the muslim temple broadcasts the regular prayers on the ‘efficient’ loud speaker system. The locals seem to not take any notice of them.

For evening meals, the Dinner by the Beach is a popular Barbecue. However, I found that the food was a bit down on quality. Very close to the hotel is a couple of good restaurants which visitors quickly get to know about; the Ferrenghi Garden, which has won The Cleanest and Most Pleasant Restaurant Award; and The Happy Place. Both of these eating places have very good and less expensive meals.

There are many day tours which can be taken from the hotel; Round Island Discovery, George Town City Explorer, Hill and Temple Sightseeing, Botanic Gardens and Butterfly Farm and Orang Utan and Mangrove Forest. Some of these are full day tours and include lunch along the way. We took an hour or so at the Butterfly Farm and were impressed with the amount of colourful species they have there.

Penang? Yes, we would return just to enjoy the foot massages on the beach or at the massage places close by. Yes, the food is enjoyable and there are some very quaint things to see.  The people are kind, efficient and have a sense of humour too.

Well, back home on Sunday to the cooler climate of Melbourne – not good!

140321 Hotel Fort Canning

Whenever I come to Singapore, I notice the many parks and gardens.  The boulevard from the airport to the busy business centre is well kept and attractive. Years ago, the government brought in a rule to have residents and visitors refrain from littering.  This has helped to make Singapore one of the most popular hub cities in Asia, if not the world.  The place always looks tidy and, you feel safe.

I had never really experienced the parks of the centre of Singapore so I decided to book my accommodation at the Hotel Fort Canning en route to Penang.  This award winning boutique hotel has just 86 stylised rooms and suites. Mine is just a ‘basic’ room, but is well supplied with modern fixtures and fittings.  Controlling the blinds and light from the TV remote, I enjoy a comfortable sleep to awaken to the idea of a hot bath. The bathroom is on what was the balcony in a previous version. Not many bathrooms have such great views to be enjoyed but, from the large tub-bath overlooking the surrounding parks and gardens, this one has that uniqueness.

The staff in The Glasshouse Restaurant were very helpful and encouraged me to enjoy both the delicious breakfast and the day ahead.  The chef makes great omelettes, too.

The hotel was once used as a base for the British during World War II.  For many years, while the military were in residence, the area was known as the “The Forbidden Hill”.  But today, the wise developers have turned the “hill” into a parkland. Walkways extend throughout the parkland of well established tropical vegetation. Atop the hill, is a water reservoir, which is used in the metro water system. One section of the garden is dedicated to ASEAN sculpture, with some interesting forms indeed; another section contains a large variety of spices. On display are a 9-pound gun, a battle box, a time ball and a lighthouse – all remnants from war days. There is an archeological dig exposition, and many rotundas where picnics can be enjoyed, away from the bustling streets of Orchard Road and the like.  All these items and exhibits make the morning walk from the hotel that much more interesting.  You may want to use the fitness station.

Within the parklands are some older style buildings.  I was interested to see included in the marriage registry building, a Registry of Muslim Marriages.  There was a Muslim couple having their photos taken and they were dressed in black.  (I wonder what the black means if white stands for purity in a western wedding? Mmm.) In the ‘lowlands’ area of the park is the Galleries Utama and Viridian Art House.

I’m glad I chose this magnificent location to stay these few nights.  I can look out towards other hotels and ask “why would you stay in a matchbox full of tight rooms spilling out onto the busy pavements of Singapore?”  I think whenever I return to Singapore, I will be considering to return to the relaxed estate lifestyle of Fort Canning Park.

 

140323 Gardens by the Bay

I’ve often thought about my own garden as being in heaven. The lush green leaves and new growth just excites me during the spring and the yellow, orange, and red colors in the autumn tell me that ‘I’ve had a good summer.”

It was not until I entered the brilliant “Gardens by the Bay” today, that I realised Heaven has moved to Singapore.  If you ever take a flight to Europe, and you’re the slightest bit interested in gardening, take a few days off in Singapore. I stayed at Hotel Fort Canning, which is a boutique hotel with 86 rooms just close to Orchard Road. You need to be prepared for some walking but the parkland around the hotel is great to enjoy that early morning walk before a day of retail therapy.

The first wonder of the modern gardening world, the “Gardens by the Bay” is what I just said – it is WONDERFUL! You can travel by train or taxi or by ‘leg’ from the city or from your accommodation. A walking frame would make the journey quite arduous indeed, but for those fitted with a comfortable pair of sneakers, the walk through the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and shopping complex is well worth-while.

Someone in Singapore has a great imagination.  Setting up gardens is one chore but the design of Gardens by the Bay is another.  Featured are more than 500,000 plants from over 2,200 species. These plants are featured outside and inside in the very large ‘cooling’ houses.  The Flower Dome features 9 different gardens from 6 different countries – an extensive array of Baobabs, cacti, plants from South Africa, South America, California, the Mediterranean region, and Australia – yes, kangaroo paw of many varieties.  The changing Flower Field Display currently displays the War of the Roses.  In the next couple of months, there will be many tulips shipped in especially from Holland.

The second ‘cooling’ house , is the Cloud Forest.  You can explore the highlands amidst orchids, pitcher plants and ferns from the cool-mist Tropical Montane region.  Featured is the World’s tallest indoor waterfall at 35 metres in height.  In this cooling house are 7 ‘discovery’ zones; the Lost World, a Cloud Walk, a Treetop Walk, Crystal Mountain, Earth check, +5 Degrees and a Secret Garden.  Each two hours, automatic misting is turned on to water the gardens, and you feel like you are in the highlands of a tropical rain-forest.

After taking the lift, you stroll along suspended pathways around the forest. The vertical garden is covered with various kinds of orchids and other tropical plants. These plants expose some beautiful blooms of magnificent colour.

As you exit the dome, the gift shop is filled with souvenirs of top quality surprises for friends and family, as well as to keep the memory of a great garden vividly in your mind.

I took an Audio Tour through the extensive themed gardens outside – there can be lots of walking if you wish, as an alternative.  You can stroll the 22-metre high OCBC Skyway.  In the evening, there is a free light and sound show called the OCBC Garden Rhapsody using these large man-created metal trees.  These structures have more vertical gardens growing up the entire ‘tree’.

This area is permanent and is a must see whenever you come to Singapore.  In fact, Singapore used to be a ‘stopover’ point but today, it is a ‘destination’ in its own right.

In a fews days, I will have to return to my ‘summer burnt’ heaven in Australia. Now, thats not a good ‘gardeners’ thought at all.

111021 Luan 21 October

 

We decided we would like to finish our holiday with something different so went to The Elephant Village some 20 kms north from Luan Prabang in the jungle. We arrived at this meticulously prepared resort where the mission statement is ‘saving elephants is our mission’. Laos was known as the Land of the Million Elephants but the elephant in Laos is now an endangered species.  Some 1,600 remain of which an estimated 560 still work in the forest harvesting timber.  These elephants face a bleak future of hard work and abandonment.  The aim of The Elephant Village is not only to rescue working elephants from the harsh abusive environment in which they must make a living, but give them a brighter future, allowing them to roam freely in the jungle, group together in herds, mate and start families. The activities with the animals plus the accommodation at the resort, provide funds to support the elephants.

When we arrived, we were taken by boat to the other side of the river.  There we took part in the morning wash.  The elephant lifts one leg which acts as a step, then you hold onto the ears and haul yourself up to sit right under the ears.  We can tell you that it made us quite nervous being so high up just hanging onto the ears.  The Mahout (trainer/handler) sits behind.  The elephant lumbers into the river and is instructed to sit down. Then you are given a scrubbing brush and you have to wash and scrub the elephant clean whilst sitting on top.  The younger, more lithe backpackers stood up, slid down to the tail and also, sat on the trunk.  We were quite happy to stay in one place! Michael lost his scrubbing brush and his Mahout went diving in the river to find it which left Michael alone on his elephant holding onto his Mahout’s mobile phone. A nervous experience. Afterwards a seat was tied on the Val’s cleaned elephant, and we went for a ride through the jungle.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the resort and pool, finding out about the vet hospital and relaxing under a hut which had a wonderful view of the river, mountains, jungle and the village gardens.  A delightful lunch capped off the morning.

It was then back to Hanoi, Singapore and home, sweet home.

We had a wonderful time. Thanks to Yarra Travel Junction for the marvellous organisation. We had lots of fun and made new friends.