A Travellerspoint blog

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Saigon - Ben Tre


Arrived in Saigon from Bangkok @ around 10pm – luckily booked hotel & airport transfer to eliminate the room/taxi hassles that time of night. The visa which I already had in passport from Bangkok worked just fine. The immigration official (who looked 16) looked up at me & 10secs later I was in Vietnam legally as a tourist. Found my driver with a sign Mr. Robert (Kim Hotel) and we were off. The traffic chaos of Saigon (in my mind anyways) was well upon us driving to Kim Hotel – motorbike mania. Transit system is non-existent so motor bikes are a way of life. Dropped off @ Kim’s by Pham Ngu Lao (travellers hub) shown my room up on the top floor; the penthouse – or so I called it. It was just a single room but on the top floor with the communal terrace two steps away with great views of the city. I tucked in for the night after a well-deserved cold beer to celebrate my arrival – Vietnam man.
Next day; my ritual city walk to get the bearings of a new place. One thing about Saigon is that almost all the main sights are accessible by foot, a short xe om (motor bike taxi) or metered taxi. Walking Saigon is an event all on its own, crossing the street - a rite of passage. Limited amount of traffic lights (mostly traffic circles) so must move into oncoming traffic - do not stop - breathe - focus on the other side. Found a back alley serving up Vietnamese Subs or should I say baguettes eaten in Vietnam - first 'real' baguette & was goooooood. Enter the Cho Benh Thanh Market - huge with anything & everything to buy - all same and constantly being asked @ every stall. I never did buy but think the trick is to pick one and haggle. Back to area and find a street side local food 'restaurant' with a welcoming lady ushering me to her small table & chairs. Menu in english with pics - sometimes a bonus. Still no clue what to eat so just picked one and ended up being very tastey; so good went back the following night.

Next day was tourist day and chose a couple places I wanted to visit. No lollygagging -get it done. I walked the long walk to the Jade Emperor Pagoda first. Built in it 1900, exquisite wood carvings. Then stopped off @ the War Remnants Museum. Everyone should visit - tear in eye. The American presence; agent orange and how it affected the Vietnamese people (as well as American soldiers) for several generations even after the war, the brutality inflicted - how war can change a man's soul. Hundreds of pictures from American war photographers depicting a war that should never have been. And just what the Vietnamese people endured for so many years - war, really, what is it good for. Felt drained as I always do after visiting these 'memorials' and headed back to sit on my terrace with a beer. Went out for supper; met French & American guy and we continued to a small nightspot down the street for beers and laughs. They continued after 1am, while I had a tour in morning and needed beauty rest.

Booked a trip out to My Tho & Ben Tre (Mekong Delta) for the day. Ended up being a big bus which I usually don't like (+30 people) but actually turned out okay - met some nice folk and the company had many activities for our day out. Bus to where traditional music was played & explained. Walk to canal boat area then off for short ride to area where they make & sell (of course) coconut candy, honey bee hives, and tea consumption. Then on big boat down the Mekong Delta River to where we had our lunch. Back to bus - a Pagoda - huge Buddha's statues ( past, present & future) and back to Saigon. All for $11 - good value.

Saigon's good for a couple of days though very busy and all tourist attractions can be done (mostly) in this time. Mekong Delta could be worth more time if you have it. Many 1-3 day trips are easily arranged @ many of the hotels. I bought an open bus ticket for Saigon - Nha Trang with a stop in Mui Ne. Beach towns - why not? Next morning, got picked up...but that's another story.

Posted by jollyrobbie 03:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Pai - Chiang Rai

Pai - Chiang Dao - Thaton - Chiang Rai

I left Chiang Mai feeling fulfilled and ready for the next stop - Pai. This seems to be part of the travellers trail though not always travelled due to time restrictions. I have some time, so I go. Tuk tuk to main bus station I get a ticket for mini-bus B150 again cheap cheap for the 3hr (or so) journey. Met 3 Germans; Thomas, Henry & Frederica on the bus who were very friendly and we all had the same idea, let's check out Pai. Years ago used to be a laid back, hippy town where people used to go and end up staying for weeks. Now, it has more bars than before and of course a 'walking street'. Note: I mentioned ‘walking streets’ and not sure if I described it properly – typically a dirt road that used to be lined with local shops & markets, pleasant. Now, poured concrete with many more shops, restaurants and brightly lit. What happens when a place becomes popular – wee bit touristy.

We arrive in Pai after a 2hr journey through 'very' winding roads – lots get sick and the bus station sells motion sickness pills before you set off. A nice ride (hang on) through mountains with scenery. I stayed @ my first dorm and for B100 a night, cheapest yet - only need a bed. We all meet up later for some beers and end up bringing couples from Quebec and UK in our group for a drunken night. Pretty cool place with a fire pit in back the bar – bamboo floor. Lots of laughs. The only way to see Pai is by renting a motorbike which I chose not to and walked around taking in the local sights the next day. They do have a good night market with all kinds of food to fill the belly; along with a table full of varied insects to choose from, yum. Everyone was leaving the following day so we met up for more beers and said our good byes.
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I was told Chiang Dao was supposedly a place to see on route to the north so bought a bus ticket to Mae Malai where I had to connect to a local bus to Chiang Dao. It took sometime to sort out ‘where’ I had to get this next bus but after many hand gestures and talking with the local tourist police – found it. A good bus for short distances & was the only white person on it – excellent. Arriving in Chiang Dao there was some confusion as where my stop was so jumped off anyways. I ended up walking 7km with pack to the area of my choice – up near the mountain.Tried the first place, full, though luckily Malee’s Nature Lovers Reserve had a room in back for B300 a night – bonus. Quiet with a beautiful backdrop it was the right place to catch up on the blog and just relax for a bit. I did go check out the Cave that is worth it if staying in area with temples of course, especially one that is crumbling dating back to AD 191.

The next day, I head for the local bus station to catch a ride to Thaton. From here you can catch a longtail boat along the river for the 4 hr. journey B350 to Chiang Rai – which was my plan all along. I wish I had more time in the north as there are some gorgeous spots to see, Mae Salong being one of them. Thaton also has a huge temple on the hill with views of the local countryside – looking @ it right now while typing but I’m enjoying being lazy. A real pretty area but my main focus is to get to Chiang Rai which I’m flying out of to sort myself for the next trip; Vietnam.

Was thinking last night have I experienced Thailand like I wished & more or less, certainly. What I do regret is not meeting more locals; head into villages or just spending time getting to know the Thai people off the travellers trail. However, this can never be forced and 'have' met amazing Thai throughout my trip.

Caught the public long tail boat from Thaton to Chiang Rai -well worth it. Takes you down the Kok River with beautiful scenery of the local farms and villages along its banks. And as a bonus, an elephant or two. Beats the bus by a long shot to be assured. United nations (yes, boat full of around the world) arrive in Chiang Mai port and walk into town. Have no idea where to stay so pick Orchid Guesthouse which is close to sights & sounds of downtown. Take off for my last night in Thailand - bitter sweet. Night Bazaar is definitely a place to see with great food and nightly entertainment of Thai music & dancing. Next day walk to Temple - lay my bracelet from Koh Lipe (far south to far north) and say a l'il blessing of further safe journeys. Not quite sure if proper etiquette but monk said nothing - think he understood.

Family from guesthouse drove me to airport - waited a couple hours boarded my flight to Bangkok. Th CIQ sticker got me - passenger in transit - once landed in Bangkok had to find Qatar Airlines transit desk to get boarding pass. Did find but not very clear - to me anyways. Qatar was late but looking @ all 12 stewardesses in the gate made it bearable. Quick flight 1 hr - Saigon, Vietnam. Next!

Posted by jollyrobbie 18:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Part Three

Part Three...Cooking & Fireworks


With a good trekking trip finished and after sleeping most of the following day, I rented a motorbike to drive out of the city of Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep Temple on the mountain. You know that feeling you get that ‘maybe’ not such a good idea – well, I didn’t listen. No crashes of any kind, just driving in a city during the holidays can be somewhat – crazy, let’s say. Making my way out of the city got lost then found my way again - I was making my way up the mountain ran out of gas. With a head shake & smile, I point in a downward direction and coasted for a kilometer until I stopped in @ the Thai park ranger’s station that was kind enough to give me enough gas to get me down further. After finally finding a proper gas station – thought – do I want to try again? Okay, why not? But ‘way’ too busy - cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks and people everywhere in throngs. Though did the climb up the ‘many’ stairs to see an amazing collection of temples, statues, monks on cell phones and a great view of the city. This being an iportant time for the Thai people, they bring gifts to the temples and give blessing to their Buddhist religion. Drive back to city was much calmer, parked the bike @ Libra, shower – head out for some dinner.

Sitting, eating on the side street, I noticed a line of floating lanterns coming from one area of the city – had to find out what was up? After walking through a couple night markets I turn into a temple finding people lighting lanterns, releasing into the night sky. Monks were blessing each one, chanting in the background, with a lit ambiance which created a beautiful scene. After a somewhat frustrating day – totally made up for it, funny how that works. And the only night without my camera – it was for me alone.

New Year’s Day – I was planning on heading north to Pai but decide to stay in Chiang Mai. After the lanterns the night before I couldn’t even imagine what they would do for New Year’s Eve. Another walk around during the day (always something to see in Chiang Mai) I decided to take a Thai cooking class in the afternoon. Baan Thai Cooking Class looked good to me. Arriving promptly @ 4:30pm I met my class; Australian lady with her two girls, a Polish, couple of English, two Czechs & the lone Canadian. Gai was our instructor; funny girl who laughed @ her own jokes. She first took us to the local market where we were educated in the local food & spices. Back to class where we chose 4 dishes to cook. One by one we cooked, laughed and after ate our own dishes. And I devoured my own cooking - surprise, surprise.

Back to Libra for a beer and head out for the night’s activities. Already the night sky was filled with lit lanterns floating across Chiang Mai. Hundreds of people were writing their wishes on lanterns & releasing with hopes of coming true; which is part of the ceremony. Most made it, others caught in trees while many had to be put out by stamping with feet. Fireworks were shot in the night once New Year’s Eve was upon us and was an amazing scene to behold; Happy New Year!

I headed back after a good night, traffic was chaos & glad my walk was not far. Next morning, I said my good byes to my Libra family who bought me a tuk tuk ride to the bus station. I bought my ticket to Pai which is my next destination to further north.

Posted by jollyrobbie 16:58 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Part Two

Part Two... Tarantulas & Elephants


The Libra Guesthouse has a variety of trek excursions to choose from including 1-3 day guided tours - I chose the 2 day trek. As I’ve mentioned, the Libra is family owned & operated and the guides who take you out also work @ the Libra which I found appealing which made my final decision in the end. Chiang Mai is trekking mecca with many companies offering their own versions and can make it difficult to decide. Toto was our guide (like Dorothy’s dog) and we’ve been joking around from the first day @ Libra so felt like the right choice. The group had a quick meeting night before; given a list of what’s needed and a breakdown of what’s expected over the next 2 days, sounds good.

Toto picks us up in Libra’s truck; 3 americans, 2 french and 2 Canadians. Our first stop is a local market on the way out of Chiang Mai. Buy some munchies for the drive and wait for 3 spanish who decided to come last minute. After a 45min drive, we arrive @ the waterfalls – have a cold dip & and a laugh, we’re off. Next is the natural hot springs; set amongst the mountainous range which was fed from a geyser upstream. Very relaxing in the pool, wanted to stay longer but our fearful leader beckons us out to start the trek. We hike a small trail to the source of the hot spring – Geyser steaming @ 100 degrees celcius.

Now we begin the 9km trek up & down 3 mountains; baby, mamma & papa. Baby? I don’t know whose baby this was but found it quite temperamental. Okay and I’m a bit out of shape but not last out of the group. After a while body was digging the work and felt better. We arrive in the first hill tribe village out of three we’re going to see today. The ‘Karen Tribe’ is a village of about 20 families. We’re allowed to walk around, take pics and relax for a bit. Beautiful village; clean, all food grown and children laughing. We move onto Mama Mountain and she was caring - still a workout but moving steadier. Nice views, a couple pose shots, a snack, we move forward. Being a lollygagger looking @ stuff, taking in the scenery - I got left behind. When I caught up to rest of group they were looking down with Toto, who’s poking at a Tarantula with a thin stick to get him out of his hole. He didn’t like that which was the point I guess and did get him out – very cool.

After crossing a bamboo bridge (bamboo everywhere) we arrive in second village. What I found interesting is that they’re not Buddhists but Christians. Almost the whole of the surrounding area are of the Christian faith. They did follow ‘nature’ as their religion, as are own natives believed – all is connected, respect what is provided, no waste. Then the priests showed up with their ‘message’ and changed all that, silliness. Yes, being fastidious. Talking with Toto, he told me Libra’s the only place that does treks through these 3 villages providing them with food, medicine and us. They sell their wares and always have beers/soft drinks available for us to buy. We move onto Papa Mountain and he was fine. Nice views as we trudge along and now starts to get dusk. Trekking down to our last village where were going to be eating & sleeping - it’s completely dark. A few flashlights (no real help) but a bright full moon guides us along and gets everyone into the village safely. Our home for the night is a large bamboo hut for all; with mattresses and mosquito nets on a bamboo floor. No power - candle’s light the way. Waiting for us outside is a roaring bonfire and after a refreshing cold shower, we gather together waiting for dinner. After a delicious meal of spring rolls, chicken curry and rice, we take our full bellies back to the fire. Toto and our other guide brought out the guitar; we sang a few western hits but better yet, they sang Thai songs - amazing voices with a full moon above.

Next day after a great sleep with another good meal set in front of us, we get ready for the day’s activities – elephant riding & bamboo rafting. The village is set along the river banks - not too far to walk down & wash a couple of elephants. My first elephant experience. I was lucky enough to be the only one in our group to go down by the river in the morning and watch both elephants being ridden across by their owners – slow & steady. Before riding them for the day we get to give them a good scrub in the river, the shirt comes off and I jump in for the task - amazing animals. There are only two this day (usually four) so the group was split up; 6 riding elephants while the other 4 rafted down the river by bamboo. I had to ride these very cool creatures. Two of the girls sat on top in a wooden seat while I straddled ‘Betsy’ (what we named her) on the neck - my legs right behind the ears. We walked for about an hour through lush jungle following the river and crossing at certain points, loved it.
We met the rafters & traded – goodbye Betsy. Balance is key when rafting on bamboo and knowing how to use the bamboo pole but did get the hang of it. We lazily floated down the river to a small village where we stopped to wait for the ‘elephant riders’ to arrive. Then we all rafted together for the remainder of our trip – 2 hours total. There were five on each and a guide heading down some tricky rapids, then changes to calmness with beauty of the jungle surrounding us. The other raft with Toto crashed twice while ours (with the two Canadians) maneuvered gracefully – for the most part.
We slowly start to see civilization as other tour groups lining shores as we pull into our final stop for lunch. I wanted to stay in the jungle with the villages, its people and of course – Betsy - I miss her even if it was a short time. After yet another good feed, we board the truck and head on back to Chiang Mai. We arriving @ Libra, parting ways with fond memories of a great trip. I highly recommend this 2 day trek with Libra, it was special.

Posted by jollyrobbie 22:27 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Part One

Part one...Old City & Temples


Left Ban Chang after a quick visit with my friends on a B160 minibus to Mochit bus station (Bangkok) to catch a bus north to Chiang Mai. From minibus station it's a short walk over to the main bus terminal where buses leave predominantly to the north/northeast regions. After a watching people choose and checking out various prices with levels of comfort, I decided to treat myself to a overnight VIP (ATS) bus B867 to Chiang Mia. The advantage of VIP is less customers and full reclining seats - spoiled. Leaving Mochit around 8:00pm with a couple stops, we arrive in Chiang Mai @ 6:00am. I booked a place at the Libra House - family owned & operated. Too early for their driver to pick me up (free) I hop on a tuk tuk B80 instead. Arrive, settle into my very clean, cold water/fan room for a whopping B250 a night - cheapest yet. Breakfast and a quick call home (family you know - no matter what age) I slept most of the day away however got up to walk and get the layout of the area - Old City on Christmas Day.

I decide to stay in the old city. Many temples are within walking distance so stumbled across Wat Chiengman - my first temple in Thailand. I like the monks. So many questions I'd love to ask if given the opportunity. Temples are all free and have donation boxes located throughout the temple grounds to help with maintenance. Walking around is a treat, taking in the old architecture & designs and then sitting inside with Buddha at the forefront. I sit and watch worshipers give blessings to whom they believe.

The short version of Buddha:

Buddhism is a religion to about 300 million people around the world. The word comes from 'budhi', 'to awaken'. It has its origins about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha, was himself awakened (enlightened) at the age of 35.

Siddhartha Gotama, who was never considered a god, was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, in 563 BC. At 29, he realized that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he explored the different teachings religions and philosophies of the day, to find the key to human happiness. After six years of study and meditation he finally found 'the middle path' and was enlightened. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism — called the Dhamma, or Truth — until his death at the age of 80.

To many, Buddhism goes beyond religion and is more of a philosophy or 'way of life'. It is a philosophy because philosophy 'means love of wisdom' and the Buddhist path can be summed up as:

(1) to lead a moral life,
(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) to develop wisdom and understanding.

Sounds like something I could personally acknowledge and do to a certain point do - leading a 'moral' life, hmmmmmm?? Honestly, unable to remember names of rest nevertheless, all individually unique with the same concept in mind. The largest temple had a garden with trees and on these trees were signs with Buddha sayings - felt good after reading each one. There was also a monk teaching a class Buddhism - better than any PlayStation. I met 3 Chinese girls on vacation from Shanghai who asked me to join them & I did. Funny & delightful they were, had a great time hanging out and after a stop for some fruit shakes (yum) we parted ways.
It's Christmas, met a German couple, we went out for some dinner, then after, karaoke - I chose Summer of 69 and was awesome of course. Not snow, turkey dinner & family though with +20's, cold beers & fellow travellers alike, we made do.

Posted by jollyrobbie 00:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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