Jan 20, 2014

Cambodia's stunning beaches

I last visited Cambodia some 6 years ago, when we toured Ankor Wat (my second time) and previous to that, I was backpacking in the country in 2003. Over Christmas we went down south and I got to see Sihanoukville ten years on, Koh Rong for the first time and the amazing Otres.

I remember I had stayed in a bungalow up on the hill, just past the Lion roundabout where you followed a gravel track to the beach. The place has changed beyond recognition and the beach is much cleaner. However the main Serendipity strip I wouldn't want to hang around too long. The scene is very much backpackers and old men;  the beach itself is dominated by government mandated promenade-front bars, all the same, all with the same furniture.

A night later and we headed to Koh Rong, a largish island off the coast. As our last trip was enhanced (or as Chi would say -  'ruined') by a very interesting boat trip to Battambang, I hoped this one might be better. A new half-million dollar catamaran would be our vessel cutting journey time from 2 hours to 30 minutes. As we sat aboard with the engine turning over I was still optimistic. As the Cambodian engineers disappeared into the engine compartment, half an hour went by and travelers started hopping off to drink beer at the jetty-side bar, my faith wavered. An hour later, chugging along the coast in a distinctly non-Koh-Rong direction, a Russian regular delivered the hilarious truth...they're taking us to the slow boat. Once deposited right back to square one and the best sunbathing spots had been bagged we were off again, this time to our destination.

I had no idea where Paradise Bungalows was, but we would be able to walk there along the path, which didn't exist, but at the least the tide was out aiding the dragging of unjustifiably heavy luggage through sand for 800 meters. Never presume anything travelling in this part of the world: hopefully you'd hop on the boat, be disembarked, checked in and ready for a swim before sunset cocktails - realistically, prepare for the fact that despite your destination being maddeningly close, you could end up there after dark and feeling like you've just been long hauling it across a continent.

Koh Rong is stunning. A small stretch of crowded cheap accomodation surround the pier but at the end of the beach is the much quieter Paradise Bungalows. The place is slightly stuck in a time-warp in terms of tending to guests, and our $60 a night beach front bungalow was basic, open to the elements with not a shelf or drawer in site, just two double beds with saggy mattresses and mosquito nets. Having had our food chewed through by a critter we soon disposed of anything aromatic to avoid more visitors. Other guests staying up in the hills talked of monkeys in their rooms! They were complaining in the nicest way possible, the staff just looked amused and shrugged their shoulders as if to say 'This is paradise, take it or leave it!'. The beach front water-buffalo added to the faraway feeling. One mesmerized tourist whispered to me in awe as she slowly raised a long-lens, : 'What is that...'. Newb.

Cambodia Xmas 2013
Paradise Bungalows, Koh Rong
The mandatory jungle trek was the closet to a jungle trek I've seen on a tropical island, a moderate climb followed by a very steep descent over large boulders. As usual the flip flops I had weren't doing me any favors. We emerged from the foliage onto a long beach which had been named by the unimaginative beach naming committee of South East Asia (who seem to have a big influence in the region) 'Long Beach'.

Cambodia Xmas 2013
Long Beach, Koh Rong

The catamaran had been repaired but on the 40 minute journey back to the mainland we wished it hadn't as we pitched and rolled as if entombed in a washing machine, my daughter proceeding to vomit everywhere garnering the sympathy of backpackers who were missing their cousins back home. I sat anxiously next to Chi who I knew specifically hated boat trips of this nature and was using every ounce of mental strength not to see her breakfast again. Conversation was out of the question.

A tuk-tuk down to Otres just 3 kms from town and an utterly amazing, largely deserted beach, with very limited accommodation. We rented a terraced garden shed and shared a 'bathroom' with the rest of the resort that bilged yellow water from the well out of its taps. Safe to say I let the hygine go a little those three days, even though it was Christmas, and maintained a decent alcoholic haze the whole time. One night our whole row of bungalows lay wide awake blinking at the ceiling at 3am listening to a drunken couple having a domestic in the row behind.
Cambodia Xmas 2013
The garden shed
Cambodia Xmas 2013
Otres Beach

A scenic two hour drive took us to to Kampot and 'The Mango Tree'. Traditional Khmer houses sit in a lush tropical garden by the river, the breeze swaying the palms and sheep grazing in the garden; all a welcome background as you sit on the veranda over the water and enjoy the sun setting behind Bokor mountain. Renting a three bedroom house on stilts for $60, the place had the atmosphere of a French summer camp: kids, swings and board games, kayaks and bicycles for hire. We took the night trip on the river to see fireflies in abundance and disturb the bioluminescent algae, the next day took the bikes and pedaled through a maze of grassy, single lane tracks bordered by the residences of smiling locals and shady banana trees. A lot of over-exuberant barking dogs too.
Cambodia Xmas 2013
The Mango Tree, Kampot
Although its rough around the edges compared to the polished experiences available in Thailand and Malaysia, Cambodia has just as much beauty. The people are great, and one more thing, the food was fantastic.

Phnom Penh is still a good 5 hour trip from Saigon by bus/car, or a (relatively) expensive 40 minute flight. Car hire is reasonable (e.g $50 for a private car with driver Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, 4 hours).  

Sep 24, 2013

Building a House Vietnam Part 2

Construction started yesterday on our 98m2 house in Cu Chi province, an auspicious date provided by the monks in District 7. Chi is managing the entire process and fairly nervous about getting the whole thing right. Here in Vietnam you only pay the builder for construction per m2, absolutely no materials are included in his costs right down to the bricks and cement. Luckily out in Cu Chi, with many of the 12 aunts/uncles still around, Chi has plenty of contacts including a materials supplier who will do everything apart from roof tiles for us. This guys has his own factory which manufactures outside tiles (you know those terracotta ones ubiquitous in this country). After the deal, we get a stone table and chairs (you also know the type) for the garden.

The construction crew are tied to a contract which denotes when payments are made and dependent on certain stages of the house being finished. One of Chi's Uncles will be observing the crew (2 main builders and 4 labourers) everyday, filling out an observation form on their progress. It's due to be finished by Christmas. Let's see about that.



Aug 1, 2013

Saigon Bridge 2

Ongoing work and nearing completion. That infamous trundle over the narrow, crowded Saigon Bridge will soon be a thing of the past.


Jul 6, 2013

Inside the Museum of HCMC

Recently I went to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. The building was called Gia Long Palace pre 1975 and was where NgoDinh Diem moved to after the independence palace was bombed. I couldn't find the underground tunnels.



The exhibits themselves were as expected...displays of old machinery and wooden boxes used by heroic comrades during the war. "This wooden box was used by xxxx to store revolutionary pamphlets". One exhibit showed an anchor, the placard read: "An anchor". Another actually had a large color picture of a Citimart supermarket. Like finding a picture of Sainsbury's in the British Museum. 

A museum exhibit covered in biro 

A room of displays

Stamps. Hooray for the stamps.


It's a sad indictment of a supposed museum about this fine city that most of the displays are old bric-a-brac used by the party. It wouldn't surprise me if sister models of some of the ancient printers and cameras on display are still being used in government offices somewhere in the provinces.

Two rooms have murals depicting two of the most important historical events in the 20th century (for Vietnam)

The August Revolution 1945 - "Independence or Death"

Fall of Saigon - 1975


Outside, military vehicles captured by Vietnamese forces and then used in the war against the Americans.

Spoils of war

May 20, 2013

What 4.6 million dollars will buy you

Some pics of 'chateaux' in Phu My Hung. I shot a pic of the villa I believe to be the $4.6m, the most expensive in the development. The gap between the houses is about two meters. Space is one thing associated with luxury ... but apparently not in Vietnam. This is a crowded little row of characterless villas.




May 14, 2013

The crystal ball works - or the prevailing of common sense

I've always thought Saigon has a unique and charming city center, specifically the central part of D1 - Le Loi from Ben Thanh to Hai Ba Trung, Dong Khoi from the Notre Dame to the river, Nguyen Hue and its surrounding side streets. Even Ton Duc Thang, with the hotels lining the river front.

Back in March 2007 I wrote the following in the post 'Will 2020 ever come to Saigon?:

What I envisage for the city is a pedestrian area encompassing Nguyen Hue, Dong Khoi and Lam Son Square. I am no urban planner and maybe it's too late to build the parking that would be necessary, but wouldn't it be nice.....

And then in 2010 in 'Nowhere to go'.

Do not despair however residents of Ho Chi Minh City. One last hope remains and I am talking about the frontage of the Saigon River in Districts One and Four. Nguyen Tat Thanh currently houses the Saigon Port which I hear will be moving to Nha Be District at some point in the future leaving a wonderful stretch of riverfront available from the Tan Thuan bridge all the way to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh. And why stop there - once heavy traffic is diverted from Ton Duc Thang with the completion of the tunnel and the East-West highway, the river front here could also be developed. Picture it - kilometers of walking, restaurants, cafes and family attractions. With the District 1 skyline in one direction and the Phu My bridge in the other, the esplanade would be the envy of South East Asia, thousands of new visitors would flood the city, and long suffering residents and their children would finally have somewhere to enjoy. 

Now see the article 'Ho Chi Minh City downtown area to be expanded' (10/5/2013)

According to the plan, which has been approved by the city government, the existing downtown area, covering District 1 and District 3, will be expanded to include an area along the Saigon River in District 4 and Binh Thanh District and the ports along Nguyen Tat Thanh Street and the Tau Hu-Ben Nghe canals. Many streets in the area will become pedestrian streets and shopping areas, and the green area will be expanded by 70 hectares. Le Loi and Nguyen Hue Streets will become pedestrian shopping areas.Except for buses and other public transport services, motorbikes and personal cars will be banned from traveling into the area

The Saigon River’s western bank quarter: the river’s bank area that stretches to the Tan Thuan Bridge will become home to cultural centers, recreational facilities and public spaces.


I truly hope the city authorities press ahead with these plans and make this a reality. Combined with the proposed plans for a link to Thu Thiem via a pedestrian bridge and a large riverside park on the other side of the river, the city could make giant strides towards providing genuine recreational areas for citizens.

Plans are just plans however. As the press is reporting, the take off of the 'new urban center' in Thu Thiem is hitting roadblocks with land prices too high, despite 95% of the clearance already having been completed.

Thu Thiem new urban area unattractive to investors.

So, we'll see it (all) when we believe it.