The bus journey from Kampot to Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be 13 hours instead of 8 hours, but what does that matter when HCM is such a wonderful, modern and exotic city! We both loved it at once, and felt that we were back in a great world metropolis. It might even be better than Bangkok! It’s certainly easier to get around, and its got a lovely and busy atmosphere. As expected the traffic is insane, especially in rush hour, but I managed to cross the road with Mike’s help!
We stayed in a really nice hostel in District 1, which meant that we could walk to all the main tourist attractions in the area.
The first stop on our first day was the Independence Palace. It’s the old presidential palace which was stormed by the North Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon and marked the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. The palace has been kept the way it was back then, and it feels a bit surreal to walk around this beautiful old building that still looks exactly as it did in the 70ies.
Notre Dame Basilica & old post office
The Cathedral and the old post office are two architectural remnants of the French colonialists in HCM. The Cathedral marked the first church we’ve seen since being in Southeast Asia. Both buildings are gorgeous and very European looking. Being there feels a bit like being somewhere in Spain in midsummer.
War remnants museum
The war remnants museum offers a terrifying and detailed lesson in the Vietnam War (1955-75) and its consequences that are still affecting people in both Vietnam and the US. It’s a very graphic way of learning the history of this incredibly bloody and horrifying war, and it certainly makes an impression.
Two hours from Sihanoukville lies the town of Kampot. It’s known for its French colonialist architecture and relaxed atmosphere, as well as the pepper being produced locally which is world famous. We liked the atmosphere straight away. The town is situated along the river, with a nice big riverfront and big open streets. There’s much less traffic here than in the other Cambodian towns we’ve been to, and there’s much less stress and hassle getting around here. There’s also lots of nice little restaurants and bakeries here serving French food…
We rented a scooter at the hotel, and it was really nice to be able to get around by ourselves – this is the first time we’ve felt comfortable doing that in Cambodia. We drove an hour out of town to Bokor National park, which is situated on a mountain, to check out the so called ‘ghost casino’ and a waterfall. It got quite cold as we drove up the mountain, and we had to drive through a lot of fog to get there.
As it’s dry season we didn’t see much of the waterfall, but the casino – twice abandoned, once during WW2 and during the Khmer Rouge regime – was pretty spooky in the fog. There was also a whole bunch of other absolutely massive buildings under construction on the mountain top – who knows why as there was almost no people there, and it’s quite far from anywhere. But it was a quite cool, if very Cambodian, experience.
On the way down through the park we spotted a couple of gigantic birds with massive beaks jumping around in the trees. Mike got very exited. We later found out that they’re called Hornbills. They are really enormous birds, and very spectacular to see up close.
Tonight we had some proper cheese and red wine for the first time in Asia. It was really nice. We both agree that Kampot is our favourite of all the places we’ve been in Cambodia – it’s just really relaxed and pleasant, with a nice atmosphere and pretty architecture.
We arrived in Sihanoukville after 5 hours by minibus, and it was such a relief to be out of the smog and noise of the city and to see the ocean again. We walked down to Serendipity Beach to watch the sunset. The beach is nice but very busy with lots of restaurants and hawkers and beggars. The next day we took a tuk-tuk to Otres Beach which is much more relaxed. Mike took a lesson in kite surfing.
Koh Rong Samloem
We travelled by slow boat out to one of the two main islands on the coast of Cambodia, Koh Rong Samloem. We’d already been warned that the island was very quiet, with not a lot going on, but we thought we’d take a day or two to just relax. Once we got of the boat we realised just how quiet the island really is. There was a strip of about 15 hostels, restaurants and houses, and that was it. There was also a lot of garbage covering the beach, the roads around the houses and in the river. Garbage handling is clearly a massive problem here, and it seems like a lot of it ends up in the ocean and washes up on the local beaches.
We joined a boat tour with the hostel we were staying at, snorkelling in a few different spots, then we fished for a bit and watched the sunset. We didn’t catch any fish, but some of the other people on the boat did.
The next day, Mike went around and made enquiries about where he could get his Padi divers licence. There’s two companies doing it on the island, and one of them offered accommodation included in the price. The course would take three days.
On day one of his course, Mike started studying and was preparing for a dive in the afternoon. But because it was so windy and the waves were so big, his first dive was cancelled. The same thing happened on day two, and the weather forecast didn’t look promising either. We debated whether to go back to Sihanoukville or on to Koh Rong because we were both really bored on the island. We decided to get on a taxi boat to Koh Rong. Luckily Mike didn’t have to pay for the course he had just started.
Koh Rong is a lot busier and a lot nicer than Samloem in my opinion. It was nice to actually have a choice of restaurants and hostels to choose from, and the beach and the island was a lot less polluted by garbage.
However Koh Rong also has it’s challenges it seems; we met a lot of people who experienced getting really bad food poisoning while on the island, and some people had a theory that it might have been a gastrointestinal bug that was continually being passed around. Poor Mike got struck down on Valentine’s Day, and for two days he was really ill and couldn’t keep anything down. However despite all the delays of bad weather and illness, he managed to complete his Padi – and we were finally free to leave the island.
Taking the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was an interesting experience. We had several near accidents when cows suddenly ran into the road, and the traffic definitely feels a lot more unsafe than in Thailand.
The traffic was also the first thing that struck me about Phnom Penh. It was almost at a standstill everywhere, and there was an incredible amount of people on scooters. It was much more chaotic than in Bangkok, where you can walk on the pavement and cross the road in relative safety on the zebra crossings. In Phnom Penh there either was no pavement, or it was blocked by cars, so you have to walk in the road. If you want to cross the road you simply walk slowly out into the middle of the traffic, and hope that everyone slows down enough to drive around you. If Mike wasn’t there I wouldn’t have been able to cross the road once! Overall it was quite difficult to simply walk around and explore the city, which was a shame.
The Killing Fields & S21
On our first full day we rented a tuk-tuk with another girl from our hostel, and drove to The Killing Fields and the genocide museum at S21 to learn more about the genocide and what Cambodia went through during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was as expected horrifying and deeply shocking and upsetting, and put all of us in a pretty dark mood.
We had originally planned on staying two days in Phnom Penh, but decided to shorten our stay and book tickets on a bus down to the coast for the following morning. We also checked into a nice hotel to celebrate our two year anniversary.
Siem Reap is our first stop in Cambodia. My first impression is that Cambodia seems more chaotic than Thailand. On our first day we explored the town centre and the streets around the infamous Pub Street. Then we got a three day pass to explore the temples of Angkor. Apart from a pool crawl on our last afternoon, we spent the majority of our time in Siem Reap visiting the temples.
Like most tourists, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to drive us around to the most famous three temples, Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and the ‘tomb raider temple’ Ta Prohm.
Everything is as impressive as you would expect, but spread over a much larger area than you would imagine. We were originally planning on exploring the area by bicycle, but I am very happy that we didn’t as the distances are pretty long and it is very hot – it would have been exhausting.
Our favourite temple of the ones we saw was probably Ta Prohm – but there was a lot of other people there, which made it harder to take in and really enjoy the scenery.
However the so called ‘big circuit’, which we did the next day, was a lot less busy. The big circuit contains a group of temples that are not as famous as Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but no less impressive in terms of size and architecture.
On day three we watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat with what must have been at least 500 other people. The crowd was unsurprising, and I think it illustrates well how popular this tourist hotspot has become.
Mike had heard about the Hong Son loop from a friend, and decided that he wanted to do it. So we rented a 125 scooter in Chiang Mai and set aside 6 days to explore this northern part of Thailand. Our version of the loop consisted of 6 days, 600 km, 4 towns and 1864 turns in the road.
We started the loop, setting off from Chiang Mai, by going a bit out of our way and up to Chiang Dao. This little village is located at the bottom of a beautiful mountain. It felt really nice to get out to the countryside – everything was so quiet, except for a lot of crowing roosters – and the air felt really fresh after being in the city for so long. We stayed on a little farm/micro brewery.
We got there quite late in the evening and decided to head to the local tourist attraction before it closed. One of the things the town is known for is a network of 12 km of caves underneath a mountain, some of whom contain shrines. We got a local guide to take the two of us around with a gas lamp. It was completely dark, and the caves just go on and on forever. We could have gotten lost so easily, and it would have been impossible to find your way out!
Afterwards we drove into the ‘town centre’. The village of Chiang Dao consists of only two roads. One of the roads was filled up with food stalls for the evening marked. We happily walked up and down, trying a little bit of everything.
The next morning, after being woken up continuously during the night by crowing roosters, we visited a local temple/monastery. There was quite a lot of stairs to walk up to get to the temple on the side of the mountain, and there was lots of mindfulness quotes on signs along the way. It was really peaceful and beautiful, almost no-one else was around. We both agree that Chiang Dao is one of the nicest and most surprising places we have visited so far.
We got on the road to Pai, stopping once because Mike insisted on visiting a waterfall.
Everything was going really well, the road went over the top of a really high mountain, the view was amazing, and the road full of turns. Then Mike suddenly informed me that we were almost out of petrol. We hadn’t driven past a petrol station in a long time at this point. Luckily we were going downhill by then, or we probably wouldn’t have made it. After 30 min, at the foot of the mountain, we finally found a place that sold petrol.
We made it to Pai just as the sun was setting. Pai is lovely, we stayed for two nights and visited as many of the sights as we could. I especially enjoyed all the really amazing street food! Our first morning we watched the sunrise over the Chinese village.
It was really really cold, and very very early, but beautiful. Then we visited the white Buddha, the big tree, the memorial bridge and another waterfall.
We were going to watch the sunset at the canyon with some guys from the hostel, but we got there to late and missed it. We stayed at the canyon for a while anyway and watched the stars instead.
We really enjoyed our time in Pai, and Mike especially wished we had more time so we could have stayed longer.
Mae Hong Son
Next stop was Mae Hong Son. Again we drove over some beautiful mountains with really nice views. Outside town we stopped at the national park to visit the fish cave, Than Pla. The fish, in the carp family, are considered holy. We fed the fish with nuts and cabbage. They are really huge, and there’s loads of them!
Then we watched the sunset at Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, the most famous pagoda, before we had dinner at the night market.
Mae Chem & Doi Inthanon
This little village is the last stop before driving over Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, and back to Chiang Mai. We didn’t realise we were there at first, the village is that small and average. We stayed in a nice homestay, and it was nice to relax a little before the last day of driving.
The next day we got up early and drove up the mountain. We were wearing all the clothes we had with us, and it got colder and colder the higher we got. At the top of the mountain there are two beautiful pagodas built to celebrate the king and queen’s 60th birthdays. The view of the surrounding countryside was nice, but quite a lot of it was covered in clouds. The rest of the drive back was uneventful, and we caught our night train back to Bangkok that night – we thankfully managed to get a proper sleeping berth this time.
After visiting Ko Landa we took the night train from the south back to Bangkok. The train was surprisingly comfortable. The beds had soft mattresses and pillows and thick blankets, which was better than some of the hostels we’ve stayed in! Because of this experience, we decided to book a night train for our journey going north as well, but unfortunately they didn’t have any more beds available for the day we wanted to leave. We got two reclining seats in second class instead. It turned out to be a very uncomfortable night, and we quickly learned that the nights in north Thailand are a lot colder than down south.
Chiang Mai, the main Thai city in the north, is lovely, if very touristy. There’s lots of coffee shops and cafes. You also can’t turn a corner without seeing a temple or pagoda. The city has a pleasant atmosphere, much more relaxed than Bangkok, although it’s still a bigg-ish city.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This is one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai, situated on the top of a mountain and view over the city. To get there, we drove for a bit out of town on a scooter, and up the hill. The road is very steep, and our scooter could only barely manage it. When we got there it was another steep walk to the top. The view was amazing and so was the temple, although full of other tourists. But we were happy that we picked it as one of the temples to spend some time in.
The grand canyon
Mike’s friend had told us about this place before we went, it’s an old quarry 30 min outside town which has been turned into a water park. One of the main attractions was a really high jump that Mike was dying try. We got there an hour before closing, and Mike jumped twice from 7.5 metres. The place was really cool and we could have easily spent half a day there.
We love a good night marked, lots of cheap food and opportunities to try new things that we haven’t tried before. Chiang Mai has one of the biggest and most diverse markets we have been too, you could walk around there forever and quite easily get lost. Needless to say we ate a lot.