Tasty Delights off the Tourist Trail in Thailand

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I feel like I am giving away a secret that I will come to regret. A place of beauty off the tourist trail, which once named may not remain that way for long. I guess that is the irony of travel writing!

So, here's the big secret.....

In our trip south from Bangkok we decided to visit a number of small towns that were not frequented by tourists. We were hoping to experience the real Thailand, outside of tourist hot spots like Phuket and Bangkok. Which is exactly what we found in Prachuap Kiri Khan.

The town is roughly 280 kms from Bangkok, which equates to about 5.5 hours by train (although most information states between 3 and 4).




A number of chain hotels (think Hilton, Sheraton, Sofitel etc etc) attract tourists in droves to the beach resort of Hua Hin, 100kms north. If fancy pools, western toilets and comforts are your thing than look no further.

Those willing to sacrifice the creature comforts to meet local people and feast on the most amazing Thai food will be rewarded in Prachuap, although it does lack a decent swimming beach.
Prachuap Kiri Khan is a fishing town and it's worth visiting just to taste the cheap and abundant local seafood. A great place to try this is at the north end of town, where there is an amazing nightly food market.



I can recommend the seafood omellette, the mango salad featuring calamari, prawns and mussels and if that's not enough the seafood noodle soup. YUM!





Also at this end of town is Wat Thammikaram, which can be reached by climing a steep mountain to the top. I was keen to make the climb (and it is meant to be quite rewarding) but I was scared away by the monkeys at the bottom! (I'm not very brave!).






I strongly recommend a night or two in this town if you are taking the train south to Phuket. It break up the long and uncomfortable train journey, and you will be rewarded with the most amazing food (the best Thai food I've eaten) and an experience of the real Thailand out of the tourist resorts.

Cat Ba Island - Halong Bay

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Look at any itinerary for a visit to the north of Vietnam and it will almost certainly include a trip to the famed Halong Bay. Visiting in the winter months can see the beauty of the area shrouded in fog, and for backpackers who have invested money that is in short supply that is can be devastating. An alternative is a visit to Cat Ba Island, the largest of the 3,000 island that rise from Halong Bay.


We visited the area during the Vietnamese winter (between December and March) and had heard reports of travelers paying for an overnight boat-trip in the Bay only to see very little due to poor visibility and spend the evenings freezing cold. Not inspired by this, we instead opted to go straight to Cat Ba, which is often included on the second day of packages purchased in traveler cafes in Hanoi.

Getting to Cat Ba Island is quite easy on your own, no tours or guides are necessary.

From Hanoi, you need to make your way to Haiphong where the ferries leave for the island. We opted for an afternoon train ride from Hanoi, such that we arrived in Haiphong in the evening, stayed overnight to ensure we would be on the first ferry in the morning. Aside from the joys of negotiating a ferry ticket the journey was pain free.

We were greeted by a number or representatives from the guesthouses opposite the ferry dock. As it was the low season we were able to negotiate a large room with water views for under $10 US a night.

The advantage of being on the island and having water views was that we were able to avoid the cold and rain, and watch the fog lift and then descend again from the comfort of our room, which was truly beautiful. The limestone casts which the area is famous for are amazing and worthy of their UNESCO World Heritage listing.



While on Cat Ba, hire a moto driver and head out to Cat Ba National Park. There’s plenty of wildlife to spot and some great walks. Be careful if visiting after rain, as there is a steep climb and the track can get quite muddy. I managed to fall on the flat part of track after climbing back down much to the amusement of my partner and the moto driver watching on!




While in the park, Hospital Cave is a must.

Hospital Cave (as the name suggests) is a Cave that was used by the Viet Cong as a hospital during the Vietnam War. Visitors are guided through the Cave by a former soldier who served here. He has limited English, but that only adds to the experience.




The island is also home to beautiful beaches, Cat Ba Co 1, 2 and 3. We were fortunate enough to see sunny skies on our last day and headed down to the beach. They were the nicest we saw in Vietnam (and we did check out a number of spots including the tourist hot-spot Nha Trang) and because of the season we had the beaches to ourselves.


A great way to end out two month journey through Vietnam.

Cat Ba Sunset from our hotel window







Beautiful Dalat

For travelers with enough time, I highly recommend a visit to Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Dalat is an extremely popular vacation town for the Vietnamese, but is not on the tourist trail followed by many international visitors, which is their loss really!

I found the temperature in Dalat similar to home (Sydney), it was sunny and warm but with a chill in the air and jumpers were required at night. It was a nice change from the humidity of Saigon (HCMC) and made seeing the town on foot a real joy.

Dalat was popular with the French during their time of rule, and the town does have a European feel – delicious pastries can be eyed from shop fronts, manicured gardens are plentiful, and even a miniature Eiffel tower!

The town is about 7 hours on a bus from Saigon (beware the tourist cafes that say only 4) and 5 from Nha Trang.

If you’re looking for a break from the hustle and bustle, then Dalat is for you. The people are friendly and the children scream ‘hello…HELLO’ desperate for your attention. At the end of the day my mouth was sore from so much smiling!







The roads are much easier to cross in Dalat!




Some on the 'cheesy' local sites
















Surviving Ho Chi Minh City

Friday, July 4, 2008

So you’ve just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City before you head out there are some things you need to know.

1. HOW TO CROSS THE ROAD

The first thing a visitor to Vietnam must learn is that pedestrian crossings and traffic lights are virtually non-existent in Vietnam. HCMC (or Saigon as those in the south still call it) has one of the highest population densities for any city in the world, and its residents own over 4 MILLION motorbikes, so crossing the road is not at all like at home.

video

When we first arrived I heard an ex-pat, who had been in Saigon some time, refer to the traffic as being similar to a school of fish – a large collective that flows around obstacles. Motorbike riders are used to people stepping out in front of them, so the trick is to ignore your fear and walk slowly, in a straight line across.

DO NOT STOP!

If you stop the drivers do not know which way you are going and are more likely to run into you. If you walk slowly enough they will be able to move around you.

2. GET A MAP AND PUT DOWN THE GUIDEBOOK

The great thing about Saigon is the friendliness of the locals. You will be greeted by big smiles and teenagers desperately wanting to practice their English, you’ll be surprised what crazy adventures they are willing to take you on!

Most guesthouses will have easy to follow street maps with the main tourist spots clearly marked. Grab one of these and head out to see what you can find. The main sites can be seen on a guided day tour, but most sights are within District 1 and easily reached on foot, so save your $$$s.


So now you’ve mastered the technique to cross the road and you’ve got a map in your hand, what should you not miss?

1. FINE ARTS MUSEUM

I am not an ‘arts’ person. I’ve been dragged to plenty of art galleries by my partner over the years and to be honest I’m one of those who can’t tell the difference from one painting to the next, and I certainly can’t find meaning and emotion beneath the brush strokes. But I really did like this place.

The building itself is an excellent of colonial French architecture and inside is a range of art-forms including sketches, paintings and pottery.

The second floor houses the museums permanent contemporary works and it was here I was the most captivated. There are some brilliant paintings from the Vietnam War and it’s the first time a painting has evoked emotion.

2. THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM


This museum evokes different feelings from each and every visitor. It contains relics and photographs from the American phase of the Vietnam War and is run by the Vietnamese Government.

Regardless of your feelings on the war, it is definitely a worthwhile to hear the story told from the other side.

3. BEN TANH MARKET



Spend some time getting lost in the Ben Tanh Market. With over 300 stalls if it hasn’t got it you don’t need it!


4. THE CHRISTINA NOBLE CHILDREN’S FOUNDATION

This suggestion is not one you’ll find on any tour.

Having experienced a horrific childhood in Ireland in the 1940s, Christina was well aware of how much children could suffer. Armed with nothing more than a dream to assist the children of Vietnam, Christina arrived in Saigon in 1989. Against significant odds and with no understanding of the Vietnamese language, Christina established a Medical Center for abandoned and malnourished children and later followed The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation.

Her story can be followed in two autobiographical novels, Bridge Across my Sorrows and Mama Tina.

Visits to the Foundation can be arranged via their website Christina Noble Children's Foundationand it offers travellers an opportunity to get outside the tourist district and get involved in the wonderful work they do.

Spending time playing with the children in the Social Centre is one of my most cherished memories from Vietnam, and I will definitely be going back when we return to Vietnam in November.


SIDE TRIPS

There a number of day trips that can be taken to sights outside Saigon. Most guesthouses will happily arrange the tour for you, but they can also be booked at a number of stores in the backpacker area of District 1.

1. CU CHI TUNNELS

During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas built an amazing network of underground tunnels that are now known as the Cu Chi Tunnels. Visitors to the area are able to learn about the life of the soldiers and how they managed to survive.

As part of the tour, guests are taken through a section of the tunnel, which has been widened to accommodate Western tourists!

At the conclusion of the tour, visitors have the option of purchasing bullets to fire off different weaponry.

2. TAY NINH (CAO DAI TEMPLE)


When booking your trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, there is the option of including a visit to a Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh.

Tay Ninh is the original home of the Cao Dai religious sect which is an odd mix of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity, and their patron saints include Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill.

It certainly is a colouful affair and if time permits I highly recommend a visit.






5. MEKONG DELTA

A boat trip on the Mekong is a must for any visitor to Vietnam.

We used the trip as a means of crossing in to Cambodia. Our tour took 3 days, which was a bit of an overload and I couldn’t wait for it to end.

For those not going all the way to Cambodia, one day would be sufficient to experience what life is like on the Mekong River.

Tasmania on the cheap!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Thanks to the Australian Government the cost of traveling to Tasmania by vehicle ferry is now even cheaper!

In the recent Federal Budget, the Government increased the rebate on the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalistation Scheme. This has led to fares being slashed by up to 30%.

Tasmania (the somewhat forgotten State) is truly beautiful and offers something for everyone. Reaching the island by ferry allows visitors the chance to travel with a vehicle and experience more than just Hobart and Launceston. Those without sea legs should avoid Dec/Jan travel, as the king tide causes rough seas increasing the chance of sea sickness (I speak from experience!)

The Sea of Tasmania now only operates out of Melbourne. More information can be found on their website http://www.spiritoftasmania.com.au/

A FOOLHARDY CHALLENGE

In a couple of weeks I’ll be embarking on a camping holiday in Japan and have set myself a challenge – to downsize my pack.

Yep, I’m going from a 65 + 15L to a single 30 litres.

In this I need to fit a camping mat and pillow, a sleeping bag, as well as enough clothes for several weeks to suit a range of conditions, and let’s not forget the hair straightener.

So why have I set myself this challenge?

It’s quite simple; my partner doesn’t think I can do it!

Over the coming weeks I’ll be featuring tips and suggestions for packing smaller and lighter as I rise victorious! I’ll also be featuring destination suggestions for Vietnam as I know a number of you are planning trips for the not to distant future.