Sitting at Heathrow airport waiting to board flight TG911, today which is Tuesday 9/11. Heading for Bangkok and hoping history doesn't repeat itself! From Bangkok we're doing the overland thing to Siem Reap to try out a motorbike tour company then back down to Sihanokville and the beautiful islands of the Gulf of Thailand. You can't go wrong visiting Ko Rong! Really looking forward to being warm again after cold old England. The people there are warm but the climate is not! Heathrows huge and horrible and the promise of a Thai curry and a Singha beer is all that's keepng us cheerful. Bring it on.
The time has come to change hemispheres and continents. We've elected to use Suvarnabhumi as our hub airport this year, so we are there for the second time in 2 1/2 months and will be there twice more before we get home at the end of September. It's a beautifully designed airport, but the shops etc in the departures are all the high end London and New York type brands. Just as well coz I'm desperate for a new Rado watch to go with my Armani suit and Em can finally grab that Gucci handbag she's been searching for. 'Yeah Right' Speaking of which I've found a Singha Beer and frankly I'm loving it. Feel quite sorry to be going, after our wonderful trips and time in Saigon, but that's balanced out by the time we get to spend with old friends, visiting my kids in London and Emm can see her family too. (She even has a new nephew to meet)
We will also be working on (not in) our pub in Warwick and visiting all my old narrowboat haunts with a view to doing some 'Real Deal' canal boat tours in the future. So - should be able to keep busy enough to ignore the climate and environment. Of course; keeping the pub and restaurant moving in the right direction will require much researching of similar establishments, to stay abreast of local trends. All in the name of commerce of course. So its off to Britain to get cold, gain 10 kilos and see the sights. Should survive the three and a half weeks. We'll see...
One day left and last minute things to buy. That all done, then meetings with two suppliers to start work on next years tours. Said our goodbyes, then sat outside Zoom Cafe watching the city go by for a couple of hours, with a kiwi guy called Craig who has turned into a Saigon/Meekong local. Great company on a good night to finish our latest two months in South East Asia.
And so it was, an early start saw us check out and head for the backpackers area to board our bus for Mui Ne. Very different landscapes heading out East with a lot of heavy industry and machinery and a very busy and crazy highway. An hour out of town the relief bus driver stretched his hammock down the bus aisle and curled up for a kip. Another hour and a half and up he jumped for our half hour loo and food stop at the midway point. I'm sure that's the place where they shrink the seats, because they were getting pretty uncomfortable by the time we reached Phan Thiet. Just a few more k's and we reached our destination, Joes Cafe. Now here's the thing - a lot of people and the guide books like the towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang but personally I don't. I won't waste time ranting on about why, I don't like them but I will say this. For those working and living in and around Saigon, Mui Ne is one of the nearest nits of coast for a couple of days break, which is all we were looking for., I have to conclude that its not worth the five hour bus trip in each direction. The town is basically one coastal road with dozens od resorts lining the beach. A constant stiff breeze makes the beach a favourite with kite boarders and young Euros getting surfing lessons. That whole 'earnest bandana wearing backpackers trying a bit too hard to be cool' feeling is the general vibe. Still, it's nice to be at the beach for a rest up, and that's what we did the whole next day.
Day 3 was different. Our return bus ticket said pick up at 12:00 noon. Nah nah, yeah, but nah. The bus flew past us at around 1:30pm and dissappeared down the road. Hmmm. Better ring the bus company. 'Sorry, driver forget where you stay, you get another bus' Great. A wee while later the Hanh Cafe bus from Nha Trang stopped across the road to let some folks off, so I managed to score a couple of seats to Saigon. After two stops and four hours driving we got back to our room in Saigon at around 9:30pm So glad to be back and went to catch up with our mate Jim for his last night in Saigon for a month. We were only 4 hours late and after a short search found the oil men for a few nightcaps.
Last day and we decided that we were templed out, and we didn't need to do any more walking and wandering, so decided to try the Siem Reap Quad Bike Adventure, we had meet an Australian couple on one of our walks and I think Steve mentioned this to us so we decided to have a go!
So after much competition from the tuk tuk drivers out the front of the hotel, we arrived at the company with the bikes. These looked quite safe, and the guy that put us through our paces was very thorough, long pants,helmets etc. Still not really convinced that I could do it on my own I suggested that I had a "Mr Chou" and maybe could go as a
pillion BUT no no Madame you will be OK then they decided probably by the look on my face that they would put the guide on as my pillion. Great move, so when we got to a main intersection and had to cross it he took over. We travelled through the countryside, flat dirt roads and a bit of bush, great kids on the way all running out and smiling and waving. Saran was a really caring young man, he took us to visit a beautiful pagoda and one of the temples that we had seen previously by car. We approached it from the countryside though.
Off home again after a drink stop and a stroll around the temple, a bit late because we did the temple. Off we go yes madame just go across the rice field - its ok! Then..... Madame where is your husband???????
I said absolutely no idea, maybe he stopped to take a photo? So into reverse we go and turn around to find Stuart, there he is!!!! Middle of nowhere bike has broken down. He says probably the battery???? But young Saran who is no mechanic checks the fuses but no luck, so calls the mechanics. 10 minutes later they arrive to find the wires had broken off the battery and duly jammed the cable back onto the battery with saran's glove holding it firm. Off we go again, great adventure well worth the effort and I can ride a bike ( but only if it's got 4 wheels, and a guide on the back)
We were picked up at 9am by our smiling driver and guide Mr Neith who is still a bit concerned about if I will trip up or not so every few minutes it seems he tells me to be careful! Another warm day, we set off to Tonle Sap and the floating villages. The Tonle Sap one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia . It's fascinating to think that this lake eventually merges with the Mekong river which we were all traveling along a few weeks ago. It seems ages ago. Along the river there are lots of floating villages, schools,restaurants, and shops. It's very busy with tourists and people going about their business. We stopped at the shops and visited a fish farm and crocodile farm. The boat trip took about 2 hours, and it was incredible to see how the people live and actually survive living this way. It's amaaaaazing!
Back to town for lunch, it was nice but had to leave the soup, couldn't quite make it out.
Then off to the Roluos group of temples these are quite different to the others they are quite a lot smaller and have lots of plants etc growing over them they look really great. Our young guide is really knowledgeable and you feel like you have had a history lesson. Hard to comprehend so much history really. Back to the hotel in the afternoon, back up to the pool and lazing around reading. We decided to go to the Sugar Palm Restaurant for dinner this is apparently where Gordon Ramsey was taught to cook Khymer food for his asian cookbook. It's in the middle of nowhere and when you arrive in the dark your not sure if anything is there or not. The house is a beautifully preserved traditional Cambodian one and the food is superb. It is obviously the place to go because while we were there there were people everywhere and they were so busy. The staff are really well trained and attentive. Off home with a quick stroll around the markets and to bed.
Out of the hotel to be greeted by Madame / Sir - a gaggle of good natured tuk-tuk drivers. Anyway off we went up to the RiverGarden Hotel owned and managed by an Aussie lady called Brenda. We met our fellow cooks two lovely young girls Hilda and Dahlia from New York and California. A cup of coffee later and off we went for our market tour. We meet the nougat man - very loud horn and music. But really nice nougat! The food is really displayed well here and they have it for sale in very small quantities because the people can't afford big quantities. Young Hilda was fascinated by the beautiful array of crickets and was the only one game enough to try. She reported them rather nice and tasting a bit like peanuts. Dahlia brought some birds to let them go but unfortunately the camera missed the flight. Never mind she was pleased to let them go.
Back to the restaurant to be shown how to make a banana flower salad, fish amok and a hibiscus tea. The young chef was really great and there were lots of hands on. Now I know how to make them, the fish amok will definitely be on our menu at home. It's really good and you can get all the ingredients at home. The afternoon we went off to a workshop that showed how to make carvings from sandstone, wood, soapstone, lacquer work and painting . They are so talented and we ended up buying some kampot pepper and a large t-shirt for our happy buddha! Home to have a swim and off to dinner. Another fabulous day.
After a great breakfast, we were picked up by our young guide Mr Neith and driver Mr Veala. At breakfast, the hotel manager Vanesha came up and introduced herself - a lovely young woman from Mauritius. She certainly has a handle on this place and everything seems to run like clockwork. After a short trip we arrived at the booth to be duly photographed and get our temple tickets - another lot of punching and clicking going on! Mr Neith had tried to arrange tickets for the balloon ride but you have to book a week in advance so we did the next best thing and rode an elephant into the Bayon temple. Quite surreal and a great way to get through the traffic - the grounds are fabulous with bits of ruins on the way. Funny thing though the mamot got a text message on the way and it was quite strange watching him reply from the drivers seat!
The temples are amaaaazing and it's hard to believe they are still here for people to climb through after so many years. The grounds are really lovely and they seem to have the temple area very well kept. It wasn't too strenuous going through the various temples with quite a bit of shade on the way.
Then...... The BRUISE brothers struck again one of the two forgot she had her sunglasses on and stumbled. Well after that poor Mr Neith told me to be careful at every turn. Think he thought I was a liability. Lunchtime then more food (lovely again) and off to Angkor Wat it's a beautiful temple quite breathtaking. Hard to believe it was constructed early to mid 12th century. Great day had by all and back to the rooftop pool for a cool off.
Tired and emotional we got back to Saigon on Friday evening. Dropped the bags at our central hotel before heading to a nearby bar called Phatties to meet up with our mate from home Jim Troup. He and his buddy Tony made us glad to be back in the far more relaxed southern city. A few bars and a few too many later we hit the hay, and were both out cold in seconds. Hadn't realised how tired we were after seven weeks tour directing, but it was catching up. Took our laundry to our lady then back for a rest. Out for a light brunch, then back for a rest. Watched a movie then had a rest, watched Em working then had a rest. Still tired! We had arranged to do a famil with Steve from Vietnam Vespa Adventures with Jim invited along. While I was resting Jim rang to say he couldn't make it coz of work, and I was getting less keen. This After Dark Vespa Tour could well form part of next years 'Bikes, Beaches & Bargains' tour so I really have to meet Steve and try it out. Emma's keen as, so now I'm feeling like a party pooper. Maybe its because, like most bike riders, I hate being a pillion.
At a quarter to six the room phone rang, 'So solly - Mr Vespa here' OK, lets try this thang. Mr Vespa turned out to be our riders Mao and Vinh, both very cool dudes. First stop, Zoom Cafe to meet Steve, a great guy from America who runs various tours on 1960's and 70's original vespa 150cc scooters. The tour we're on is Saigon After Dark. All you need for this tour is a big thirst, huge appetite, and total faith in your rider, which comes after one minute in that crazy Saigon traffic. The whole idea being that the guest sees stuff that other tourists don't, eats stuff most other tourists don't, tries the local beer and stuff most other tourists don't. No drink driving concerns coz you've got a rider and no nerves coz Steve's safety record is exemplory. So kick back, relax and enjoy. Yes? Hell yes - we did! First stop was at a District 4 seafood restaurant for a big feed of Pipis, cockles, mussells, crab claws and barbequed frog, all washed down with the local Bia Tuoi (fresh beer) The ride to the cafe had the big grin factor with the cameras going and our scooters weaving in and out of the traffic. Feed and beer finished and back into it for a ride through the city centre and French Quarter before stopping down a small side road at an outragously busy street restaurant. The speciality here is Banh Xeo, or Southern Pancakes. Along with these monsters we made our own 'Spling Lol' and Summer rolls. More beer before waddling back to the vespas. The secret cafe is a privildge to visit and impossible to find. Down an alley fixing bikes, through a public kitchen, and into a small courtyard is a door with 'Cafe' marked on it in tiny writing. Up some stairs and we're told to 'Sssshhh' In a well air conditioned, very trendy cafe we have a reserved low table and cushions etc so that we can quietly settle down with a drink. The acoustic entertainment is a very large man playing a very delicate piano, another man playing violin and a vocalist singing subversive and forbidden songs from the 1940's The audience were mainly young intellectual types and despite it's historical nature, the whole thing had an avante-guarde feel. Very cool to be part of especially when the new guy got up to sing looking like someone straight out of Split Enz.
Our whole group slipped out between songs, then back to the vespas to a more contemporary music cafe. Bit of local rock, and free flowing drinks for an hour or so in a friendly-as club is the way the tour finishes. We all leave the club about 10:30pm and our riders take us home with our beers and big grins. What a top night! Waved goodbye to our fellow tour members and cruised to our hotel. Too buzzed up to go straight upstairs, so we went to a local for a nightcap. And oh yes - that will definately be part of next years tours! Thanks heaps to Steve and his crew. So much for being tired; had to drink up and get packing for our next 2 days in Mui Ne, 6am start!