BEIJING and the Great Wall

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WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING:

We pulled into Beijing after a 20-hour train journey from Zhangjiajie surprisingly refreshed, hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Doufuchi hutong where our guesthouse was. Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient and steadily vanishing residential areas, made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses.

STROLL THROUGH THE HUTONGS

The hutongs have resiliently defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into the old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave precariously through the crowds, shopkeepers peddle their wares, and groups of elderly men gossip and play the ancient game of Mahjong – note the victor’s faces rippling into a sea of creases as they smile. All the while the sundry smells of street-cooking saturate the air – steamed Baozi, fried Youtiao and spicy Roujiamou are common fixtures.

But once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey residences (Siheyuan), the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns, a welcome respite from the chaos of the Beijing’s huge and trafficked streets.

When the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-Century as an imperial residence, the city was planned so that the palace would sit at the centre while the hutongs expanded outwards in concentric rings. The inner rings would house the luxurious aristocratic residences, becoming more and more basic as they neared the outskirts. The hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City, Qinhai and Gonjian, are some of the most popular to visit.

JINGSHAN PARK

Having heard how expensive it was and how ridiculous the queues were, we decided that instead of visiting the complex itself, we’d view the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park instead. Not only is there a sweeping birds-eye-view of the imperial palace from the hilltop pagoda, but public parks in general in China are a great way to get an insight into the culture.  Go early to catch locals practicing Tai-Chi as the sun rises, or later in the day to witness all kinds of social activities. You’ll see groups of men taking turns to sing traditional Chinese songs into portable karaoke kits, kite-flying, exercising, and even elderly couples ballroom dancing – with or without music.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

To see one of humanity’s greatest ever feats of engineering for the first time was one of the most unforgettable moments of our Asia trip. Having heard so much about this legendary, quasi-mythical landmark growing up I was almost surprised to see that it looked exactly how I imagined.

Originating in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and then across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain. Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2000 years, and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

Having done our research on the best sections of the wall to visit (Thrifty Nomads have a great overview) we decided to go with Jinshanling, which seemed like a good compromise between accessibility from Beijing and being relatively uncrowded. It probably would have been a great choice, but we made one cardinal error – we unwittingly decided to go over a Chinese holiday. We also made another major error – we waited at the wrong bus stop…for ages.* By the time we got to Jinshanling and waited in the ridiculously long ticket line, our bus driver warned us that we didn’t have much time to explore before he returned to Beijing. We started off stressed and trying to rush, but when we paused to look around at where we were, at the the beauty of the ancient wall undulating over the hills and disappearing into the hazy distance, we decided to take our time, miss the bus, and figure out a way home somehow or other. We stopped rushing, admired the incredible views and tried our best not to roll headfirst down the steep, timeworn steps. In the end we shared a long cab journey back with some friends we’d made at the mistaken bus stop.

*If you get the bus to Jinshanling from Wanjing West station, make sure to cross the road into the bus depot instead of waiting alongside the road. You’ll know you have the right place as there are loads of buses departing to different destinations all the time.

WHERE TO EAT

Kou Rou Ji

Technically a halal restaurant that specialises in mutton dishes, KRJ has a huge menu with pretty much anything you could want – including the obligatory Peking duck. We ordered the duck, mutton skewers and cold cucumber and chilli salad and they were all incredible. Right on the Houhai lake and nearby the most extensive collection of hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing , it’s also perfectly located for an after-dinner stroll.

The Grandma’s

Located on the top floor of a modern shopping mall, this one seems like a dubious choice for a Beijing first-timer. But looks are deceptive – not only is the interior really cosy, but the food is genuinely some of the best we had in China. To top it off the portions are huge and the prices amazing considering how expensive a lot of Beijing restaurants are. For all these reasons it’s very popular, which is why you tick your food order off on a list while waiting in line to be called to your table. This is where the location comes in handy – order your food, take your number and go shopping while you wait.

WHERE TO STAY

Unlike the food, hotel prices in Beijing are pretty decent, even for some of the more luxury ones like the Four Seasons. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more character and still luxurious, the VUE hotel Hou Hai is in a traditional Siheyuan-style building and overlooks the Houhai lake. Yangfang alley and the surrounding area are fun and lively in the evenings, too.

We stayed in a traditional courtyard house in Doufuchi hutong which cost us about $15 dollars a night. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but there are hundreds of these rooms about. Download the Trip app (previously Ctrip) and go through the myriad options. This app will be your lifesaver in China. Since a lot of Western sites are banned in the country, Ctrip has a lot more options for both transport and accommodation, and they do everything for you (provide schedules, rates, availability, bookings etc) so you don’t have to go through the terrifying experience of attempting to speak mandarin over the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZHANGJIAJIE

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Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

Yunnan

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While most of our South East Asia trip was on the quintessential backpacker route, our next leg, through Yunnan, was decidedly not. In fact it was probably the first time on all my travels where we were the only western tourists for days on end, making us feel like intrepid explorers. Even in the most remote of my travels to date I had some basic foreign language skills to get by, or I’d find someone who knew a tiny amount of basic English. At the very least, the street signs and menus were in characters I could recognise. South-west China provided none of these options, and it was exciting.

We were determined to travel overland from Sapa into Yunnan on the train to see the beautiful mountain scenery and avoid flying (which I hate with a passion). More importantly, the more remote, undeveloped towns we wanted to see were on the train route and nowhere near a major airport hub. While we eventually managed to arrange a train from Sapa (Lao Cai) into China be warned that if you’re keen on doing the same, China DOES NOT make this easy. It’s much easier to travel into the country if you have dated entry and exit plane tickets. But I’m going to have to do a whole other blog post on how to get a Chinese visa as it’s a total ballache.

Jianshui

Our first stop in Yunnan was Jianshui. This was where we most clearly witnessed  modern and ancient China side by side. Cobblestone streets and beautifully faded frescoes intermingled with shiny sportswear and gadget shops. I’ll never forget a crinkly old lady who looked like she was pushing a hundred sitting proudly in front of her sex toy shop.

It’s obvious when travelling through China that it’s a massively booming country. When the taxi from the train station to our hotel was taking forever and seemed to only be going past huge deserted fields, I remembered reading that it’s common practice in China to build train stations miles away from city centres, as planning authorities expect such a huge population boom across all cities.

The landmark of Jianshui is the first sight you see upon entering – the ancient city gate (Chaoyang tower). Built in 1380 during the Qing dynasty, it’s just older than Tiananmen in Beijing, and looks remarkably similar. The imposingly red three-story building is made up of tall wooden pillars and those quintessential hip roofs with gilded tiles. We went exploring in the evening when we heard music and saw dozens of elderly couples ballroom dancing underneath the lit-up gate 🙂

Another main attraction in Jianshui is Zhu’s family garden. This Qing-era private mansion is made up of 218 intricately decorated dark-wood pavilions separated by a maze of 42 pillared courtyards covered in blossom trees. The main courtyard features a beautiful, over-the water outdoor theatre. You can actually stay in one of the rooms in the extensive garden grounds.

Jianshui also boasts China’s third-largest Confucius temple. With it being relatively expensive and us becoming objectively poorer, we decided to skip it. However if you’re not on a backpacker budget it’s said to be well worth a visit, supposedly being the best preserved Confucius temple in China.

Shaxi

As it was with us, a trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was, and Shaxi was the one place we travelled to that’s remained relatively pristine. For this reason the town sees a lot of Chinese tourism, but while new guesthouses continue to mushroom in the outskirts, the centre remains pretty much untouched.

Shaxi is most well-known for being the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Yunnan into Tibet. With its cobblestone streets and ancient, crumbling alleyways, walking around town felt like stepping back in time. Shaxi consists largely of four alleys and a central marketplace, both lined with little cafes with low roofs and charming courtyards. A crystal-clear stream runs down the length of the main street towards the Ming-era Sideng theatre, which was probably the most beautiful ancient building we saw throughout China. On our only evening there (the town is tiny) we listened to traditional Chinese music in one of the marketplace cafes. Walking back to our room in the rain under the light of the ubiquitous red lanterns hanging from the trees made us feel like we could have been back in the days of the tea trail.

Dali

In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though there were plenty of people, knowing that we were at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas made Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.

Dali is beautifully uniform, with characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. One of my favourite memories is hanging our laundry on the rooftop of our lovely Dragonfly guesthouse, where we could see the looming Cangshan mountain on one side and the endless rooftops on the other. The ancient town is amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets that lead into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.

Dali was also where I happened to get the worst food poisoning of the whole Asia trip. If that’s what it even was, as it was the strangest food poisoning I’ve ever had. The smell of anything that wasn’t artificial would make me unbearably nauseous, even boiled rice or fruit. Chinese food is my favourite in the world and I couldn’t eat a bite of it. This meant that when it came to our most looked-forward to activity in Dali – trekking the Cangshan mountain, there was no way I could humanly do it. We tried for the funicular that goes up to Zonghe temple, but it was closed for renovations. Disappointed, we attempted to start the trail, but about three steps in I was close to passing out. We aborted and decided to admire the mountains from our rooftop, J with a Dali beer, me with a green tea staring enviously at his beer.

Lijiang (UNESCO heritage site)

With it’s 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this beauty has also ensured that it’s incredibly crowded.  I’d never come across it before in any of my travels, but in Lijiang there’s an entrance fee just to get into the old town, and it’s not cheap. The stores that line the beautiful old streets all sell the same stuff and blare out quite literally the same song, over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. At specific times of the day the underwhelmed shopkeepers do a ‘traditional’ dance. I actually quite liked the surreal, theme-park edge that all this lended the place, but if you’re looking for authentic China, this is not it.

The most popular walking route in old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning to see.

Seeing the Jade Mountain from Lijiang town was somewhat bittersweet, as we’d intended to take the cable car to the snowy peak at Glacier Park and the next day begin the 3 day-hike to Tiger-Leaping gorge. As it was, I was way too ill to do either. The air is so thin at Glacier Park that it’s recommended to take oxygen cans to the top, and I could barely climb a few steps without wheezing my lungs out. This meant that we spent most of our time in our traditional courtyard guesthouse, which fortunately had a terrace view of the beautiful Naxi rooftops against the snowy Yulong mountains.

Missing out on the gorge is one of the many reasons that I know I’ll be travelling back to China in the very near future. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4000m above the river, making it one of the steepest canyons in the world. If you intend on doing this incredible-sounding trek then Nomadasaurus have a great review of their trip here.

Chengdu

Chengdu is actually the capital of the Sichuan province, slightly outside Yunnan, and is one of China’s fastest growing mega-cities. Despite this, the city has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. One of the most traditional things to do here is to go to a teahouse, many of which are set in peaceful, lush courtyards. On our first day there it was typically grey and damp (there’s a saying that in Chengdu you’ll see more teahouses than sunny days), so we went to the Lao Dianying Tea Garden, where we drank Bamboo Green Tea and listened to the the steady beat of the rain on the teahouse rooftop. Locals chatted, read the paper and played cards.

On our second day and last day in Chengdu we went to the region’s most popular attraction – the stiltedly translated Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It’s popular for a good reason – these animals are just as adorable and ridiculous as you expect them to be. We were told that since Pandas are super fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, they don’t get enough energy from their food, which explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll their furry selves from place to place. They have high standards for their food too – not only does it have to be a specific species of bamboo, but it also has to be super-fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green. They are essentially ridiculously spoiled bundles of cuteness.

If you want to see the pandas when they’re not simply rolling from one snoozing spot to another (we saw one that was contentedly sleeping with half its body on a wooden slat and its lower half just dangling below),  it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day.  You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and especially falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start on the crowds.

Another major highlight of Chengdu is the food. The famously spicy, oily Szechuan food isn’t for everybody, but it has to be tried at least once. We went to Tian Tian restaurant in search of the most traditional fare. Already huge fans, we decided to go for the weirdest options possible, which is really not difficult when it comes to Szechuan cooking. Some of what we ate was a revelation, some was borderline stomach-churning (I’ve discovered I’m not a fan of food served in bowls of cold, previously cooked oil), but it was all definitely a unique experience.

SAPA

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We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.

At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.

We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.

Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.

There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.

We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.

I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.

The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.

At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.

WHEN TO VISIT:

March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.

The Train:

The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.

You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

The Bus:

The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.

WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.

BAI TU LONG BAY ON THE DRAGON LEGEND

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While it’s true that our three-day, two-night cruise on the Dragon Legend was the most extravagant part of our South-east Asia trip, it’s also true that that yesterday, after hours of trying to find the cheapest places, I booked a 2 night stay in an extremely basic New York hotel for almost the exact same price. No breakfast, and about half a square foot of floor space. The experience on the Dragon legend was a little more elaborate…

Imagine admiring the jagged, looming limestone karsts you’ve seen in Thailand all from the comfort of a floating, luxury hotel room. Add to that some once-in-a-lifetime outings and a few seven-course lunches and dinners and you have yourself the Dragon Legend cruise.

While we liked the look of the ship when we were shown pictures at the agency in Hanoi, they really didn’t do any justice to how breathtaking it is in reality. All the interiors, including the cabins, are covered entirely in dark wood panelling, and embellished with 1930’s Saigon-style flourishes and luxury touches. Hand-made local art is dotted around the cabins and decks, reminding you constantly that here you are not on any typical, commercial cruise ship.

I could have spent the entire time in our cabin. While the boat dwarfs in comparison to the cruise ships you get in the Med or the Caribbean, the cabins themselves are enormous and beautiful. The huge, dark-wood beds with their fluffy, white duvets and pillows coupled with the rhythmic rocking of the water made for one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had, and waking up in the morning to precipitous karsts slowly drifting past the window was indescribable. My routine was to make the in-room coffee, put on the wonderfully cosy robes they provide, and switch to the window seat to watch the scenery some more.

Then there’s the bathroom. I’ve seen the pictures of beautiful bathtubs all over social media – stunning hotel bathtubs, outdoor bathtubs, bathtubs strewn with petals and flowers… But sinking into a warm jacuzzi tub while floating past misty, rocky drop-offs with a chilled glass of wine? That was definitely a new one for me.

THINGS TO DO:

After a welcome drink and amazing outdoor lunch, the first day’s activity is kayaking around the karsts in Bai Tu Long bay, where you can meander through and see the beautiful rocky formations up close. It was typically drizzly and moodily grey for our trip, and since it can actually get quite cold that far North it was a nice touch for the staff to greet us with hot Vietnamese tea on our return to the ship.

Back on board, you can swim in the outdoor or indoor mineral seawater pool, use the fitness room or enjoy the spa and massage services provided. Later in the evening you can either hang out and socialise on the deck or watch TV in bed. They also offer night-time squid fishing as an activity.

The next day there’s the option to start your morning with Tai Chi and hot tea and coffee on the deck (we slept in but it sounded cool). After breakfast it’s a trip to Vung Vieng fishing village and Pearl farm. A traditional Vietnamese row-boat takes you to the village, where a tiny fishing community used to live right on the water in little floating homes. There’s even a mini floating classroom where schoolkids would take their lessons. At the Pearl Farm you’ll learn the process of pearl-farming and local Vietnamese culture.

After that it’s an amazing barbecue lunch on the beach. The tables are set up just as they are in the restaurant, but on a beautiful white sand beach with the limestone cliffs as a backdrop. The food is grilled right there and then, mostly fresh fish and lots of seafood.

While they set up the tables there’s the option to follow a tour guide up the beach path to Thienh Canh Son cave. While I’m not the worlds biggest cave fan, this one was enormous and didn’t feel claustrophobic at all, in fact they set up candlelit dinners in here when the weather’s bad! Still, perhaps the best part is exiting, where you get a high-up view of the surrounding bay and the Dragon Legend ship in the distance. It was an afternoon I won’t quickly forget.

On the way back to Hanoi the next day you’ll be taken to Yen Duc agricultural village to watch a traditional puppet show on the water. I didn’t really know what to expect from it but it was actually a lot of fun.

WHAT TO EAT:

One of the highlights of the Dragon Legend cruise is the sheer quality of the food they provide. On the 3-day, 2 night you’ll be getting three lunches and two breakfasts and dinners. Lunch is usually outside depending on the weather, so of course you’ll float past the incredible views as you enjoy your meal. Menus on the table will tell you what you’re eating that day, and of course they can cater to any food requirements. Usually it’s a seven-course fare of deliciously fresh food with a focus on local seafood. Indochina Junks traditional mackerel on sizzler plate and San Diu ethnic minority grilled pork were just a couple of the amazing dishes we got to sample on our cruise.

 

THE STREETS OF HANOI

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I’m not sure that there are enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe Hanoi. Hanoi is all the adjectives – it is an an absence of negative space. It has no time for the superfluous or irrelevant – it is constant energy and never-ending chaos. Yet the chaos is not random, it serves a purpose, it’s systematic.

The traffic never stops. The meaning of Hanoi is a ‘city inside rivers’, and the rivers are its traffic. It is a continuous flow and non-existent ebb of infinite streams of motorcycles. Sometimes the stream narrows into the rivulets of the alleyways, only to pour out again into the ocean of vehicles that is the main road. In Old Hanoi especially; lights, signals and rules don’t exist. A break in the din of the horns sounds louder than the horns themselves. But just like a stream, the flow of motorbikes is reactive, weaving gracefully around whatever object is put in its way. Crossing the road in Hanoi definitely takes patience for a novice, but it never feels truly dangerous.

I fell hopelessly in love with the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Wandering down its impossibly tangled alleyways felt more revealing than visiting any national museum. The history is told by the faded, french colonial buildings that flank the streets, and the incongruous baguettes served at the ubiquitous Bahn-Mi stands. Hanoi’s even confusingly dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – presumably these days because of its charm rather than aesthetic similarity. The culture is revealed by countless lives that are largely lived outside. Shop and general life activity spills out openly into the narrow, suffocating streets. Shop-owners, merchants, kids, business men and women chat, shop, work, cook, eat and drink out on the pavements.

Unrelenting smells range from motorcycle fumes to freshly chopped lemongrass to sewage to infamous durian to heavenly pho.

The end result of this sensory assault is (or was for me) an overwhelming sense of calm. Weaving through the interminable traffic, skipping over puddles of indescernible liquids, desperately trying to avoid burns from scalding motorcycle exhausts – here the focus is on staying alive and not getting hopelessly lost in the identical-looking, ancient streets. There is no time for overthinking or introspection. The focus is no longer yourself, but the people you’re sharing this precious little space with.

Efficiency is obligatory to cut through the chaos. Many of the streets of the old quarter are named after the products they sell. Cotton street, Leather street, pickled fish street, clam worm street, and excitingly, charcoal street. If you plan on your phone dying whilst travelling like I did, then do it in Hanoi. Rationally fearing that fixing my Iphone would put a huge dent in my backpacker budget, I went to a local store suggested by one of the unfailingly friendly locals we met. After about half an hour where we watched the phone be fixed in front of us (they had live-feed screens for ones that had to be fixed round the back) I had a fully functioning phone and a wallet only five dollars lighter. If Vietnam is a socialist country, then they’ve obviously found the magic formula.

THINGS TO DO IN HANOI

If you’re desperate for a break from the chaos, head to peaceful Ho Hoan Kiem Lake and take a stroll around the well-kept grounds. From here it’s a short walk to Cafe’ Pho Co, one of the most popular spots to try Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Invented in 1940 when there was a milk shortage in Vietnam, the drink consists of thick black Vietnamese-style coffee topped by a creamy-soft foam of beaten egg-yolk and sugar. The hot version comes in a small bowl of warm water to keep the temperature.

Cafe Pho Co is slightly more expensive than similar cafes as it boasts a view over Ho Hoan Lake. It has something of a speak-easy feel – entrance is through a silk shop that leads to a beautiful Chinese-style courtyard complete with a resident rooster and enormously fat cat. It can be hard to find but don’t give up, the silk shop is currently called Cicada Silkli.

The biggest regret of my Asia trip was not having done this tour. There are so many street food spots and cafes that it would have been great to have someone knowledgeable scope out the best and most unique ones (although the street food is all pretty amazing). The reviews are exclusively great and I can’t bear to look at pictures as the food looks so good!

  • Fake shopping

The Old Quarter in Hanoi has hundreds of fake designer shops (especially sports gear) that actually sell some pretty well-made stuff. I’m not sure I could say it’s as good as the real thing but I’ve been wearing my ‘North Face’ jacket non-stop. You’ll see them everywhere in the Old Quarter but the shops tend to concentrate around Hang Gai.

Set in lovely picturesque grounds, this serene ‘temple’ (originally a Confucian University) is another place to get away from the crowds. Walk through ancient courtyards and landscaped gardens in this age-old place of study.

WHERE TO EAT:

I recommend doing the street food tour at the beginning of your trip so that you can go back to your favourite places. All of the street food is pretty amazing in Hanoi but here are some of the best spots we stumbled on;

For Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of pork meatballs served with a bowl of rice noodles and loads of delicious fresh sides – crisp lettuce, plenty of fresh herbs, a variety of pickles and dipping sauces. This place was always packed and was mainly frequented by locals. So, so good.

For beef pho. Absolutely ram-packed with locals at all hours of the day. The pho is handed out assembly-line style by a lady who takes her delicious beef pho very seriously. We went here three times.

Hanoians are huge tea and coffee drinkers, and I’m convinced that it’s partly because it’s so fun to sit and drink on those tiny plastic stools while watching the bustling world go by. Cong Ca Phe is a military themed chain that happens to serve the most delicious coffee drink I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not normally a sweet tooth but the blended iced coconut with coffee is perfect after a humid day walking around the city.

 

A Laos diary

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We travelled to Laos from Chiang Rai on the slow boat. ‘Slow’ boat, in this case, is not figurative; the trip takes two days with a one night stopover in the tiny town of Pakbeng.

My expectation of the slow boat trip was of a romantic, languorous glide over the earthy waters of the Mekong river, reading the history of Indochina on cushioned seats and eating lunch with a floating view of timeless, wholesome villages. The reality very soon dawned in the queue to get on the boat (you have to buy the tickets beforehand of course), when I very quickly noticed the yawning discrepancy between the size of the boat and the colossal crowd of people waiting to embark. Suddenly everyone was Usain Bolt’s new-found competition, racing to the front to try to get a seat by the water. The runners-up managed a small, wooden bench facing the other passengers, and finally came the overwhelmed and the oblivious, the latter foolishly thinking they could linger over their breakfasts before the long two-day trip to Laos; they got the floor.

Fortunately, one of the best qualities about people – especially backpackers – is that most have a way of making the best of a sweaty, cramp-inducing situation. In the end there was a lot of laughter, a lot of drinking of over-priced, deliciously cold Beerlao, and some engine-deck smoking of the local produce. One French couple even managed to retain the romance like an oasis amongst the dunes of rowdy backpackers, with the boyfriend reading French novels to his serene and closed-eyed girlfriend for almost the entirety of the trip.

The views on the other hand were exactly as I imagined. Tangled jungles gave away suddenly to a village of thatched huts balanced precariously on wooden stilts and occasionally to the tip of an elaborate temple. On one side of the river women washed and children played on the banks, whilst on the other herds of wild water buffalo sleepily grazed while fishermen diligently untangled their nets.

We arrived in Pakbeng just as it was starting to get dark. It was in this tiny half-way town that we had our most memorable Laotian culinary experiences: Lao Lao and Laap salad. The former was voluntary torture, the latter a revelation. Lao Lao is a 45% Laotian ‘whiskey’, except the undertones are more moonshine antifreeze than smoky peat. If you can brave the taste, you can get yourself a bottle for one dollar and have yourself a pretty good time (no guarantees about the following day). Laap salad on the other hand is delicious – you can make it with almost any type of meat but we thought we’d try the local buffalo. Laap is made by simply browning minced meat in fish sauce and then tossing in loads of fresh herbs; usually mint, coriander, lemongrass, lime juice and spring onions.

Luang Prabang, especially if you’ve just come from Thailand, is like Asia in slow-motion. Hidden high amongst the mountains of Northern Laos, it feels like a land that time forgot. Perhaps because of its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Luang Prabang has avoided the kind of rapid modernisation seen by its neighbours, and, to a a degree, other cities in Laos. The hotels are boutique, often repurposed colonial buildings, and the restaurants likewise. The result lends Laos an otherworldly kind of nostalgia. We spent most of our two days there languidly strolling down hot, dusty streets flanked by French colonial-era buildings, visiting whatever glitteringly gilded temple we happened to come across. The French influence is still keenly felt here – so that you might find yourself eating a freshly-made croissant at a Parisian style cafe whilst watching novice monks playing in the Nam Khan river, taking a well-earned break from their daily Theravada studies.

WHAT TO DO:

Kuang-Si falls:

We went to Kuang-Si falls with the benefit of knowing absolutely nothing about it. Less than an hour’s tuk-tuk drive from Luang Prabang are the most glorious serious of plunge pools and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. They’re not huge, but the texture of the layered levels and unearthly colours make them uniquely beautiful. Topaz-coloured water tumbles from the forest cliff of one single waterfall, feeding a series of smaller falls and swimmable pools below. When we saw the first of these, the lower pools, we were stunned at the beauty – we thought that this was the whole site. Walking further up you’ll come across more plunge pools until you finally get to the surreally stunning main waterfall. This is made up of three tiers – the main fall at the bottom, a middle tier where there is a secret pool which you’ll likely have all to yourself, and the top tier in the jungle where the water originates.

We took a look at the secret pool when we hiked past but since I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, we decided to give it a miss. If you’re keen on braving it past the warning signs then Nomadic Matt has a great guide to finding it here. Past the middle tier, it’s a steep and slippery jungle hike to the top, but well worth it for the views and lack of tourists. Here you can get intimidatingly close to the edge on a bamboo bridge and swing over the surprisingly still water that feeds the rest of the falls.

There are plenty of blogs that cover how to get to Kuang si in detail. We took the tuk-tuk from in front of the post office in Luang Prabang. All the options allow you to take in the scenic rural countryside, but this one is cheap (it should be about 50,000 kip or $6 dollars if sharing), safer than a scooter, and allows you to stay at the falls for as long as you please, unlike the shared minivans.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5:30 pm

Kuang-Si bear sanctuary:

The sanctuary is dedicated specifically to rescued Asian black bears, who are illegally poached for their paws and bile. You can watch them swing from their hammocks or play on their tires. 1pm is feeding time, when meat is hidden around the enclosures so that the bears can ‘hunt’ for their food.

Consider giving a donation or buying some merchandise as the fund doesn’t receive any money from ticket sales at the park.

Visit Wat Xieng Thong:

With it’s gracefully sloping rooftop and elaborate gold gilding, it’s easy to see why Wat Xieng Thong is the city’s most visited temple. At the back of the temple is a colourful glass mosaic of the tree of life, a Buddhist symbol of the interconnectedness of nature.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

Hike Mount Phousi:

Whether you choose to go at sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, you’ll get amazing 360 views of Luang Prabang – its temples, rivers and across the surrounding countryside to the mountains in the distance. You can even admire the view from Wat Chom, the beautifully simple temple that sits on top of Mount Phousi.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 5:30 am – 6pm.

Attend the alms-giving ceremony:

In Luang Prabang, the alms-giving ceremony, or ‘Tak Bat’, is a ritual that has taken place for over 600 years. At sunrise, locals will take their place on the sidewalk with their bowls of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and wait for the procession of monks to silently pass. Watching hundreds of monks silently glide through the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang at sunrise has unsurprisingly received attention from tourists, but as countless blogs have pointed out, the tradition is a serious one. If attending, it’s advised to keep a respectful distance, turn off the flash, and avoid making noise.

Visit the Luang Prabang night market:

The night market in Luang Prabang is lively, has amazing street food, and unlike some other markets across Asia, offers some beautifully made, high quality goods. There are bars and restaurants in the area and generally makes for a fun evening.

The market is in Sisavangvong Road, behind the National Tourism Office.

Opening hours: 5pm – 10pm every evening. (Technically it closes at 11pm but most stalls will have packed up by then)

Cross the bamboo bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan:

Made entirely out of bamboo, the bridge is such a simple structure that it’s taken down every year before the wet season and put back up for the dry season. Cross to explore the other side of town (or get to Dyen Sabai bar and restaurant on the other side) or to visit the paper and weaving villages.

There is a small fee of 5,000 kip ($0.60) to cross.

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

Utopia:

Famous with the backpackers, this bar is built on stilts directly over the Nam Khan river, and has cushioned mats and pillows for seats. Admire the river views or join in the daily yoga sessions. We came here one night after too much Lao Lao and went bowling with a group we’d met on the slow boat. For some reason it’s a tradition for everyone to go to the nearby bowling alley after closing time.

Bamboo:

This little restaurant was on the way to our hotel and was our favourite place to eat while we were there. Just off the centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we saw, and while the food is basic it’s also deliciously cooked. Try the seafood Pad Thai and chicken in lemongrass.

Khaiphaen:

Amazing food at a good price and is also for a good cause. The menu is full of creative twists on the local food. Try the grilled beef salad with Szechuan peppers and crispy frangipani flowers.

WHERE TO STAY:

I can’t find the name of the place we stayed at. We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere for our trip to Luang Prabang so we just wandered around until we found a local guy that said he could offer us a room for $10 a night. Obviously we took it. The room had a shared bathroom on a separate floor and the only furniture was a bed, but I loved it. Made entirely of wooden slats, the sun would stream through at all hours of the day and the view was of the Nam Khan river. Cold River guesthouse was directly opposite and made a lovely breakfast at a ridiculous price.

 

Ten ways to beat the crowds at Angkor Wat

Preah KhanBayon templeBayon TempleAngkor ThomAngkor Wat

GO IN THE OFF SEASON

In Cambodia, April to September is considered low/monsoon season and sees a huge drop in the number of tourists. Peak season is December to February. April and May are very hot and humid.

Just because it’s monsoon season doesn’t mean that it will rain every day, and when it does it’s usually heavy tropical rain, which can lend a different kind of romantic atmosphere to the temples. Visiting at this time means that the vegetation is at its lushest and greenest, which will look especially impressive at temples like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. Also, the lichens and mosses that cling to the temples come to life when damp, adding a characterful vibrancy to the stones. Of course if you’re in Cambodia not just to see the temples but also to hit the beaches at Koh Rong, it might not be the best time to go. Bear in mind also that it will be more humid in the wet season.

BUY YOUR TICKETS THE DAY BEFORE

This way you can be one of the first people in the complex while everyone else is in the long ticket queue. The office is open from 5 am to 5:30 pm and tickets can be valid for one, three or seven days.

ENTER ANGKOR WAT THROUGH THE EAST GATE

If you’re not particularly fussed about seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or already have, then start the rest of your days by entering from the smaller east Gate instead of the main west gate. This side of the park sees markedly fewer tourists in the morning.

GET UP EARLY AND DO IT IN REVERSE

 

Getting up early won’t necessarily help you if you do the typical route, as everyone else has the same idea.

Where it will help is if you reverse the order of your route. The most heavily visited temples are, in this order, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, Ta Som and Banteay Srei. Most of the day tours visit these five temples only and this is where you’ll find the biggest crowds.

The logical order of visiting these areas is in the same order as above. You can outsmart the crowds by acting counter-intuitively and starting your tour from the bottom of the list.

You can combine other temples that are nearby when using this strategy. Ta Keo for example, is right by Ta Prohm and well worth a visit.

Another advantage of visiting the temples in reverse is that you get a build-up effect that ends with the most dramatic ones – Angkor Wat and Thom. This can help to avoid temple fatigue.

PICK YOUR TIMES

Even the most popular temples experience a lull in the crowds at certain times of the day.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a sea of tourists, especially at the weekends. However once sunrise is over, the crowds thin out as people head back to their hotels for breakfast. Some start to return at around 9am but dissipate again for lunch. By this time a lot of people are exploring other temples so you should find plenty of quiet areas to explore in peace, especially at the rear of the temple.

Conversely, going very early/at sunrise is a good rule for most of the other temples, as everyone is at Angkor Wat. The light at this time of day can be quite beautiful. If you’re intent on climbing up the central tower at Angkor Wat, it’s a good idea to get there early. Bear in mind that only 100 visitors are allowed each day, so make sure you’re in line while everyone is watching the sunrise, before 7.30. A lot of people using this strategy say they had the whole central tower to themselves.

Going to the temples at sunset or just before closing also generally works, as all the crowds flock to Phnom Bakheng to see the sunrise from the top of the hill.

So the general rule is – Go early (except for Angkor Wat and Ankor Thom) or late in the afternoon/sunset (except for Phnom Bakheng). Prioritize the temples you want to see and plan to see them in the earliest part of the day (6 am – 8 am) or the latest part of the day (4.30 – sunset) while combining your route with some of the lesser visited places in the middle.

FYI Banteay Srei seems to be an exception to this rule, as some of the tour buses start here, and being small and popular due to it’s pink sandstone colour, it never really seems to experience any significant lull.

Another tricky temple is Ta Som. Although it doesn’t have a particular time of day where it’s significantly less busy, it’s only a brief stop for the tour buses. This means that even if you show up and it’s crowded you can wait a short while and the crowds will thin between buses.

VISIT THE MORE MINOR TEMPLES

Trust me. While Angkor Thom and Wat are undoubtedly the most dramatic of the temples, the others all have their own unique beauty.

Angkor Thom outer walls: Right at the heart of the park are the the Angkor Thom walls, which generally remain pretty quiet. You can enter from any of the gates and simply walk along the wall to the next gate. From here you’ll have beautiful views over the area and be able to visit the small and generally empty Prasat Chrung temples at each corner. The North-West Prasat, overgrown with lush vegetation, is particularly beautiful at sunset.

Baksei Chamkrong: Again, this temple is just opposite the busy South gate, and yet they’re a world apart. Just opposite the major temples of Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants is perfectly preserved Baksei Chamkrong, which though quite important archeologically, is inexplicably devoid of people. From here you can walk along a forest path to blissfully quiet Prasat Bei.

Banteay Kdei: Another romantic temple of tumbling and overgrown courtyards and halls covered in pale green lichen. The rear of the site boasts one of the most stunning strangler figs in the park. You shouldn’t have trouble with any crowds here.

Preah Khan: If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so while it’s just as atmospheric, it suffers less from overcrowding.

Ta Keo: Just behind Ta Phrom is the unfinished but incredibly well preserved Ta Keo temple.

Ta nei: Right by Ta Keo temple is Ta Nei. If you’re absolutely adamant on avoiding the crowds then this is the temple for you – its location off a muddy dirt road ensures that no buses stop here at all. Enjoy the peace and the sound of cicadas.

GO LONG

Consider visiting some of the more remote temples in Cambodia.

Banteay Samre: Further out than the other temples but still within the Angkor complex is Banteay Samre temple. Restored in 1944, it’s in remarkably good condition. The sandsone is of a beautiful pinkish colour that is especially impressive at sunset.

Bakong: Bakong was one of the first mountain temples to be built at Angkor (9th century), and you can immediately see the difference in its unique architecture. One single tower protrudes from a pyramid of five tiered enclosures. It has not one but two moats.

Phnom Krom: Phnom Krom and Bok are the sister mountaintop temples to overcrowded Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Krom is the most southerly of the temples and has the unique feature of having sweeping views overlooking Tonle Sap lake. If you’re looking for tranquillity it’s a good alternative to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. It has the added bonus of being able to drive to the top.

Phnom Bok: Phnom Bok’s position on top of a mountain that requires a 20 minute climb ensures that it’s always pretty much deserted. While the temple is worth seeing, the real highlight is the view over Phnom Kulen to the north and the plains of Angkor to the south. If you want to watch the sunset from here rather than Bakheng to avoid the crowds, bear in mind that unless you leave straight after the sunset then you’ll be descending in the dark.

Koh Ker: An entirely separate temple complex in the jungles of Northern Cambodia, Koh Ker was the majestic capital of the Khmer empire before it was relocated to Angkor Wat and is absolutely worth visiting. Prasat Thom temple in particular is stunning. Much more reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid than a typical Angkorian temple, each of the seven tiers is now covered in dense, green vegetation, having long been claimed by the jungle. You can now climb to the top via a wooden staircase on the northwestern side. You’ll be rewarded with incredible sweeping views of the Dangrek Mountains bordering Thailand all the way down to Phnom Kulen.

You can combine Koh Ker with Beng Melea as it is relatively nearby (just less than an hour’s drive), but bear in mind that Beng Melea is on the tour bus route and is always quite crowded until about 4.30.

Banteay Chmar: Banteay Chmar is another huge temple complex to the northwest of Siem Reap. A three hour drive away, this is one of the most remote of all the accessible sites, and you will likely have this place almost entirely to yourselves. Left to the the elements and unfortunately suffering the effects of looting, these temples are also beautifully intertwined with jungle.

Preah Vihear: At the very border with Thailand, Preah Vihear is also very remote. Rather than foreigners, you’re more likely to encounter local tourists that visit Preah Vihear due to its political and cultural significance. This scenic mountaintop temple was recently won back by Cambodia after many years of fighting with Thailand. Before then visitors had to sign in at a nearby army base. Perched on a mountain 550m above ground, Preah Vihear has possibly the most dramatic positioning of any of the Angkorian temples, with 360 degree views over the Thai and Cambodian countrysides.

Kbal Spean: Kbal Spean is possibly the most unique of the sites mentioned so far. While there’s also a beautiful pink sandstone temple at the site, the highlight is its position on the river, and the intricate carvings etched into the riverbed almost 1000 years ago. The Hindu carvings are intended to bless the water as it splashes over them, and it’s incredible to think that they are still so clear and hardly eroded by the river at all. One of the largest carvings is directly under a clear, still pool, unbelievably still very visible after so many centuries of being underwater. You can cool off after the climb under a beautifully shady waterfall nearby.

Perhaps because of its uniqueness this site can occasionally get quite busy.  However it’s also a 2 km uphill jungle climb, so you may also find you have it entirely to yourself.

DON’T GO DURING CHINESE, VIETNAMESE OR THAI HOLIDAYS

Many of the bus tours that visit Angkor are weekend getaways for the growing Thai and Vietnamese middle classes. Usually, these trips leave Friday afternoon from Bangkok or Saigon/Hanoi and travel overnight to reach Angkor by Saturday. This means that the weekends see exponentially more crowds. If you can, try to avoid the major sites at the weekends or use that time to visit some of the more remote temples.

Similarly, Chinese holidays can see markedly bigger crowds. The main Chinese holidays are Chinese New year; which in 2018 is from February 16 – 21 (People normally take about 16 days off), Labour day; April 30th and May 1st and National day; October 1 – 5.

 

SWITCH IT UP – GO TO PHNOM BAKHENG AT SUNRISE AND ANGKOR WAT AT SUNSET

Though it’s famous for it’s sunrise, Angkor Wat is actually set in a westerly facing direction, so the best time to visit according to a lot of people is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.

With sweeping views of the whole area Phnom Bakheng is mistily beautiful at sunrise, and has none of the crowds you’ll find at sunset. Bring a torch for the short hike.

This Angkor Sunset Finder has suggestions of alternative places to enjoy the sunset.

CONSIDER GETTING A KNOWLEDGEABLE GUIDE

If you have the budget, consider getting yourself a tour guide that knows the area like the back of their hand. They’ll know which temples are busy at which time. Mr. Tong Hann is one veteran tour guide that’s often highly recommended.

Again, if money is no issue, Anantara has a Discovery Tour Package that includes an English speaking guide and organises a private breakfast, high tea or ‘Dining by Design’ at the lesser-visited Banteay Thom temple.

 

 

 

 

A guide to the temples at angkor wat

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Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat is not only the largest religious complex in the world, but also one of the largest archeological sites in existence. The main temple is so sprawling that notwithstanding the crowds, you’ll often find yourself wandering alone down a long, empty corridor, or admiring the intricate carvings in a low-lit, echoing corner. The perfect symmetry of the structures creates a play of light and shadows that is mathematically perfect, purposefully designed to evoke a mystical, awe-inspiring atmosphere. Each architectural element is studied; the bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. This, along with Angkor Wat’s westerly facing direction (most of the other temples face East), led many scholars to believe that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb, since the western direction is a traditional symbol of death. Accordingly, the best time to admire Angkor Wat is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.

The main monument was originally built in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The layout is intended as an earthly representation of Mt Meru – the five-peaked sacred mountain of Hindu and Buddhist cosmic mythology. The central, lotus-shaped tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). When you wander through the temple to the main tower, you’re essentially travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Angkor was once home to approximately 750,000 people, making it the largest urban complex of the pre-modern world. But by the time the Portuguese came across the site in the 1500’s, it was essentially deserted. Why this is is still uncertain. Angkor remains a magnificent enigma shrouded in mystery. Just in 2015 new underground towers were discovered along with a huge, mysterious underground spiral. Massive cities between 900 and 1,400 years old have been found beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Every year it seems, Angkor Wat throws up more cryptic questions than it answers.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is a tropical fairytale. Claimed long ago by the jungle, the sprawling, sinewed roots of the aptly-named strangler fig continue to slowly choke the temple walls. It’s one of the few temples to have been left largely as it was when it was found, and it’s easy to imagine yourself as an explorer (or tomb raider) discovering it for the first time. While Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring in it’s symmetrical perfection, Ta Prohm is a dappled, crumbling daydream. Dislodged, delicately carved rocks pour into forgotten courtyards, blocking off obscure corridors and diverting visitors into an unintentional labyrinth. The dappled light filters through the leaves of the silk-cotton trees onto the ancient, lichen-covered rocks, cloaking the entire temple in a surreal, greenish shadow.

Visit first thing in the morning when everyone is watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Since this is one of the smaller temples, it gets crowded much faster. I may be biased because it’s my favourite but as the most romantic temple I think benefits most from being viewed when it’s quiet.

Preah Khan

If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so it suffers less from overcrowding.

Bayon

Just north of Angkor Wat is the Angkor Thom temple complex, with Bayon at it’s exact centre. The Buddhist temple is built over three levels and originally boasted 54 towers (now 49) carved with the 13-foot faces of Lokiteshvara – the Bodhissattva of compassion. The columns are carved on all four sides and are staggered on different levels, so that the faces, all 216 of them, loom down on you from all angles. More than imposing, the serene smiles and closed eyes of Lokiteshvara feel comforting, and lend the whole temple a uniquely peaceful, and slightly mysterious, atmosphere.

Bayon looks best just after sunrise or at sunset.

Baphuon

Also in Angkor Thom is the Hindu temple Baphuon, dedicated to Shiva. Built over three tiers that gradually narrow towards the top, it looks the most like a traditional pyramid, if a very intricate one. Climb to the top for wonderful views of the forest that surround it. It’s somewhat camouflaged so be sure not to miss the enormous reclining Buddha painstakingly pieced back together by archeologists.

Baphuon is quite large and not as crowded as some of the other temples, so any time of day is good to visit.

Banteay Srei

Distinctive for it’s unique pink-hued sandstone, Beanteay Srei, once again dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, is most noteworthy for the amazing condition of its extroardinarily intricate carvings and bas-reliefs.

For a much more in-depth guide to all the more minor and remote temples in Angkor Wat and around Cambodia, check out my post Ten Ways To Beat The Crowds At Angkor Wat.

 

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Aside from the obligatory temple-viewing, our main reason for stopping in Chiang Mai was to tick off one of the things at the very top of my bucket list – visiting an elephant sanctuary. We spent ages doing our research on the most ethical ones, making sure there was no riding or tying up, and we eventually went with Lanna Kingdom sanctuary.   We were so glad we did as it was amazing – the elephants seemed so happy. As you can see from the video it’s not hard to see why – they’re fed, bathed and cuddled all day! The best thing about the Lanna sanctuary was that the camp mahouts seemed to genuinely love their elephants.

Watch the video and meet baby Lanna, King Keaw and Ojai! If you want to read more about the elephants at Lanna check out my last blog post A diary of Northern Thailand.