A Memorable Two Days in Scotland

An opportunity arose for me to take a quick trip up to Aberdeen to visit my son for two days. Knowing that a drive would eat into the little time we had together, and be costly, I chose to fly up from Birmingham. By taking the early Saturday morning flight I would be in Aberdeen by 10.00am, leaving the rest of the day available for whatever activities we chose to do. Unfortunately the weather was not very kind to us, and knowing this, Stephen had booked us in for a distillery tour at 1.00. In the meantime we headed out to the mouth of the River Ythan to the north of the city. Leaving the car, we walked over the sand dunes on the south side of the estuary and dropped down to the beach. A brisk wind came at us from the North Sea. Across the estuary, on the opposite shore, were hundreds of seals, a huge colony made up of large, black males, a great many paler females and lots of pups in varying stages of development. Squabbles broke out on the crowded beach as the occupants protected their space or just because they felt grumpy. Great seal groans boomed across the water from the males as they used their noise to control their females and to warn off other, nearby males.

In the water, heads bobbed up and down and some seals came close to our shore to have a look at us. When we looked back the dived noisily to reappear a little further along the shore to watch us as we walked by. They are a very curious species and their huge eyes and long lashes melt any heart.

We walked out to the end of the estuary, only to turn back the way we had come. The seals followed us, curious. Going further up the estuary we came to part of an upturned wooden hull embedded in the sand with clusters of tiny mussels around its base. How long had it been there? Quite a while by the looks of it.

Returning to the car we grabbed a bite of early lunch before going to the Glen Garioch Distillery at Oldmeldrum, one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland. Production of whisky has been carried out on this site since 1797. The tour was a pleasurable experience but, as so often happens these days, there is very little activity to see, especially at the weekend. There is nobody working anywhere in the distillery other than the guides, and the process is so automated that there are very few workers, full stop. There was nothing happening in the malting area, and certainly no heat, which would have been appreciated on such a chilly day. No mashing was taking place and all the vats and apparatus were empty and spotlessly clean. We were told it was all ready for starting the process all over again on Monday morning. We did not get the smell of fermentation or the rich fragrances from the distillery.

Once the tour was over we returned to the shop where they tempted us to buy some by giving us small samplers. As Stephen was driving, he was given some to take home. My samples were lovely, although I preferred mine without the addition of water, but as I only had hand luggage I really didn’t have the capacity for extra weight or bulk.

By now it was raining properly, so we headed into Aberdeen, to the Queen Vic to watch Ireland beat Scotland and France beat England in the Six Nation Rugby. It was an interesting experience for when the England match was playing there was not a single Frenchman in the pub but nearly everybody was willing France to win.

Afterwards, we slunk out to find somewhere to eat before heading back to Stephen’s house in Cults. An early night was in order after the early start of the morning, but also, there was promise of some good weather in the morning.

The weather was indeed good the following morning, very good. So, where to go?

Leaving snow-free Aberdeen behind, we headed west towards the mountains. As we did so the snow began to appear and accumulate the further we ventured into the mountains. By the time we arrived in Braemar the snow was piled high at the sides of the road where the snowplough had cleared a way.

Armed with crampons and ice axe we were prepared for anything.

We soon started to climb through thin woodland. The snow was about a foot deep and made the going quite tough. The skies were clear and there was not a breath of wind. The exertion of the climb soon had us sweating and wishing there was some slight movement of air.

After some time we rose above the trees on to the open hillside and the white vista opened out all around us. The climb ahead looked steady but there was no sign of the path hidden beneath the deep snow. The only telltale sign of where we should go was a single set of footprints snaking away from us towards the summit at present still hidden from view. Placing my boots into the deep depressions of our predecessor, we climbed at a steady pace, stopping occasionally to appreciate our surroundings and the expansive view across to the Cairngorms.

Most of the time we were walking with our heads down following the footsteps. Imagine our delight when we looked up and saw a beautiful white hare sitting on the snow a short distance from us. After a while he bounded off up the hill with such ease, to then rest while watching us plod up through the snow.

As we neared the summit the gradient eased and so did the snow as much of it had been blown off by the wind.

On the summit, if you ignore the radio mast and accompanying shed, there is a full 360 degree vista across a sea of white mountains. The mast had wonderful snow sculptures within its framework and the building had drifts all the way up to the roof on the windward side. But now there was no wind, not a breath of it. We sat on rocks enjoying our lunch in warm sunshine listening to lumps of snow falling off the radio mast behind us. It was too nice to rush. With the summit to ourselves except for two others who followed us up, there was no desire to leave. So rarely do you have perfectly still days in Scotland, particularly when there is so much snow about, it was an experience to savour. Capercaillie clucked all around us but we’re not always easy to see despite the fact that they were black. When they were among the rocks they were well camouflaged; it was only when they were on snow that they stood out clearly.

We had to leave at some point in time, so when we had absorbed enough of the view, we set off following a rough land rover track that was there to service the radio station. The going was easy until we dropped off the summit ridge into deeper snow, and now we did not have footprints to follow. The track was easier to see as the surface of the snow was smooth, but it was also deeper, making it tough going. For a while we left the track and tried a more direct route down the hill but that proved, after some time to be more tiring with a less predictable surface under the snow. Now we were seeing more and more hare and capercaillie on this more remote and quieter side of the mountain. The tracks in the snow left by the hare were amazing. The distance between each pair of rear prints was enormous, easily nine or ten feet apart.

The descent was taking much longer than expected. We could see our target, the old military road that traversed the mountain back to Braemar, but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We had seen the best of the day, for cloud now hung about the summits.

As we we nearing the bottom, the track traversed round a small bluff. We must have been noisier than we thought because suddenly there were about 100 deer running across the track in front of us and off up the hill to our left.

Eventually we reached the old military road, and that is where I encountered the deepest snow. As I stepped on to it from the rough ground beside it, one leg disappeared up to my waist. I had stepped into a roadside ditch. It was a bit of a struggle to pull my leg out without the other sinking into the soft snow to join it. Having freed myself the road was fairly flat but still covered in deep snow until we came to the first farm. Now the road was clear and it was an easy walk back into Braemar.

We had been out on the hill for almost 6 hours. We had not been cold at all, apart from my feet, because my boots seemed to have lost their ability to keep the wet out. We hadn’t needed crampons or ice axe; the conditions had been perfect.

In Braemar we visited The Bothy Cafe for a deserved cup of tea and piece of cake. We had had a super day’s walk, one to remember for a long time to come. As we drove back to Aberdeen we reflected on the day with a great deal of satisfaction.

The following morning, I was up early to catch my flight to Birmingham and was home soon after 9.00am. After such a successful weekend, I can see me doing it again, quite soon.

Laos – Luang Prabang

If Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam are considered to be fairly frenetic and Siem Reap is fairly placid, then Luang Prabang in Laos is positively horizontal in a laidback kind of way.

We were met at the airport by Phai, pronounced pie, our guide for this part of the trip, and taken on a short journey into Luang Prabang. For the first time we were transported in two minibuses, instead of a larger coach, separating at least half the group from the guide. Our hotel, Villa Saykham, was in the heart of Luang Prabang. The reception area was not particularly welcoming but once we passed through to the garden and the rooms, which were on two levels, it looked a lot better.

Once we had settled we ventured out to see if we could find somewhere to eat. We went thinking that we might have to split up as it would be unlikely that anywhere at a busy time of evening would be able to accommodate 21hungry people. It was also important that we changed some money, for Laos, unlike Cambodia, preferred the use of its own currency rather than dollars, and charged a tax whenever dollars were used.

Eventually, I found a restaurant and popped in to see if they could accommodate us, but as it was quite busy I was not holding out much hope. Remarkably they could. That would never happen in the UK.

The Mekong River at Luang Prabang

The bulk of the town of Luang Prabang, which reminds me a little of a traditional French hill/riverside village, is sandwiched between the mighty Mekong River and the looping tributary, Nam Khan River. It means that everything is very close and easily accessible. Many of the buildings are built to the French villa design with lots of timber, balconies and pantile roofs. There was an air of affluence about the place and that was displayed best by the vehicles that people drove. There were no old cars, or even small cars. Everybody seemed to be driving new large pick-ups and people carriers.

The following morning, I got up early when I heard the monastery bell ringing a couple of houses down from our hotel. At 6.00am the monks walk in a silent line receiving alms from the local people. They in turn distribute some of the food given to them to children kneeling down on mats along the route. They all have cardboard boxes or plastic bags to receive the gifts. Roads are closed off for the spectacle and tourists have to abide by certain rules. They must not get too close, they must be quiet during the procession and must wear appropriate clothes so that their knees and shoulders are covered. While some kept a respectable distance from the monks, there were some who took liberties with the gentle nature of the monks, pointing cameras in their faces, walking alongside them as if they were trying to get a reaction from them, and at the same time spoiling it for those keeping a respectable distance for their photographs.

Breakfast was taken in the garden, after which Phai came to collect us for our day’s activities. The two minibuses transported us round the corner to visit the National Museum, housed in the former royal palace. It would have been quicker to walk, and a lot more interesting, as the main street was a colourful market with stalls on either side displaying their goods immaculately. I would have appreciated more time to walk among the stalls, enjoying a little bit of banter with the stallholders, rather than always bypassing them, which I felt was a little rude.

As interesting as the museum was, I was more interested in the human stories surrounding the royal family. Inevitably Laos was affected by the chaos of Indochina, was invaded by Vietnam and subjected to constant bombing by the Americans. This created a great deal of instability in the country and the communists gained strength. On Dec. 2nd 1975 King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate and he and other members of the royal family were arrested and sent to special re-education camps, where most eventually died. Some did manage to escape before they were arrested and ended up living in France. The royal family were not the only ones to suffer in this way. Between 30,000 and 40,000 were sent to these camps. Phai would not say much about this so I could not find out what format the re-education took, but I can assume it was no holiday camp!

After we had finished our tour the minibuses took us round the corner to the Mekong River where a very long boat was waiting for us. Again, it would have been easier to walk the short distance to the river.

Once aboard we set off on a two-and-a-half-hour cruise up river. It was very spaciously comfortable with tables and chairs, coffee, a fore deck and an aft deck, and a driver who looked to be only a teenager. It was a brilliant way to experience the Mekong, one of those iconic rivers that came up in many a school geography lesson in the 60s. Here I was taking a ride on the Mekong – another pinch me moment.

The flow on the river was quite fast but, fortunately, there was plenty of power in our boat’s engine, allowing us to scythe our way up stream. There was not a great deal of traffic on the river but there was plenty to see. On the banks fishermen’s shelters, stilted, thatched, open-sided structures, where they could sort their catch, mend their nets, store their canoes or just chill out when the day’s work is done. These are temporary structures, for during the rainy season the water levels are much higher, and the tiered, sandy beaches are under water. Naked children played in the shallows, cattle came down for a drink. On the river, monks travelled in a canoe near the shore, fishermen plied their way up, down and across looking for somewhere to cast their nets. Others stood, well balanced, in their canoes and deftly cast their nets in the hope of lifting it full of fish.

All the time a stunning landscape rose up from the river, of shapely mountains that just begged to be explored. Most were forested, but as we ventured further upstream they became more dramatic with large rocky outcrops more reminiscent of the karst scenery we had seen in Vietnam. The guide book suggests that the outline of the ridge looks like a vast green eagle taking off. I didn’t see it at the time and, having studied my photographs of the ridge, I still don’t see it. I was really enjoying this trip.

As we approached our destination Phai asked if we wanted to visit the Pak Ou Caves first or have lunch and then go to the caves. It seemed sensible to go to the caves first.

Disembarking, we climbed a few steep steps up to a platform ledge, which was more like an overhang than a cave. Near the top of the steps, about forty feet above the level of the river was a mark on the rock above our head that showed the level the water reached in 2008.

The Pak Ou Caves are home to hundreds of Buddhas of every shape and size. They sit, perched, on any ledge that will house them. Some were quite roughly crafted while others were elaborate and ornate. Venturing up another set of stone steps, we went to see the higher cave. This cave was quite dark, so I illuminated my way with my phone. It was disappointing as there were not many statues within. I had been to a similar site in Sri Lanka twelve months earlier, which was far more dramatic, with a great many more statues of Buddha.

Looking out across the river, a number of elephants roamed around on the opposite shore, brought down by their mahouts and some tourists for a bath in the river.

We climbed aboard our boat, which took us across to the other side, upstream of the elephants to a riverside restaurant perched high, overlooking the Mekong and also the tributary, Ou River, that cuts deep into the limestone cliff it skirts by. It was a stunning location for lunch and we felt very privileged to be there.

After lunch we took a diagonal route back across the river to the village of Ban Xang Hay. I guess this is a model village set up to serve tourists. It is clean and tidy, and every house has a loom producing brightly coloured cloths and scarves. One or two houses have stills producing some very strong Lao whisky made with rice. We tried some and as I did not go blind I parted with a couple of dollars and bought a small bottle to take home. It may be a false village, but it had a very nice atmosphere. The people were very welcoming, friendly without being at all pushy to sell their produce.

Having satisfied our urge to spend some money, to have some banter with the local people, although their English was quite limited, we returned to our boat and sped our way downstream back to Luang Prabang. It was a really enjoyable outing.

Once back I trawled the streets to find a restaurant for that night and also for our last night before we returned home. After some difficulty, I found one that could cater for us, Tamarind, and I found quite a special one for our last night party.

The next morning, I rose early again to watch the monks process through the streets. The same children were out with their cardboard boxes. If anything, the behaviour of some onlookers was even worse. It is only a matter of time before somebody says, “enough is enough.”

Our minibuses, later that morning, collected us and first took us to Talad Phosy market. Here, there were stalls of fresh produce, homeware, fish and meat. It is the place that all locals go to for their shopping. There was an abundance of vegetables, many of which were unfamiliar to me, brought in from outlying villages. They were beautifully displayed, and the women sat amongst them and chatted constantly with their neighbours while waiting for a customer. Other stalls had large bowls of rice piled like cones of varying shades of off-white, depending on the varieties of rice for sale. Perhaps, the most interesting, but totally un appetising, were the dried rats and squirrels that clearly have an appeal for the locals. There’s no meat on them, so what their value is, I fail to understand.

Squirrels!

The fish and meat stalls were far less attractive to look at but were, nonetheless, interesting to view, if you had the stomach for it. Great galvanised bowls were crammed with live fish, which, one by one, were taken out, hit on the head and gutted. Water flowed everywhere. The meat was no better, with huge carcases being cut up into smaller cuts of meat. I like meat but I’m not sure that I want its processing on public view. What we were seeing were things that take place behind the scenes back home.

Ann having a go

Next on our journey, we visited a roadside cotton weaver. There we saw the cotton seeds gently crushed to produce a little ball of cotton. This was then processed on a very basic, homemade bit of kit into a thread for weaving. The visit was the prelude to crossing the road to walk around a narrow path through the village. All the way around were stalls and at each stall there were children dressed in brightly coloured local ethnic costume trying to sell us their produce. It was horrible, so unlike the village we visited by the river yesterday. These children were being exploited by their parents and every stall we passed a child would say, “Two for a dollar.” None of us stopped to look or showed any interest in what they were selling and I, for one, kept my camera away.

Towards the end of the village we came across music and chanting. Curious, I peered in through the open door to see a shaman in black robes standing on a plank of wood, bouncing ritualistically in front of a makeshift altar while he performed an exorcism. He seemed to be in a trance and had to be supported to stop him from falling over. It made me feel slightly uncomfortable that I was watching but, at the same time, curious.

How relaxed are you?

Our main destination of the day were the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls, a series of falls with attractive pools below each one. Before we reached the falls, we walked through the Tat Kuang Si Bear Reserve, a sanctuary for bears rescued from poachers. There were about eight on show in their large enclosure and they all looked well cared for. It was fascinating watching them from such a close position and the see how they interacted with each other.

Continuing, we came to the first fall with its azure, blue pool surrounded by mature trees. Each fall we came to led to another pool above and another fall. There must have been about a dozen small waterfalls culminating in an impressive 25m fall at the top. The pools looked very attractive and there were several brave souls who were not put off by the cold water. Although I had my kit with me, I decided quite early on that I wasn’t going to venture into the water. I was put off by the crowds. This is clearly a very popular spot. It must be, for once you have been on the Mekong and visited a few temples, there is not a lot else in Luang Prabang, so everybody comes to the falls.

A picnic lunch was brought to us but it was not the best meal we had on this trip.

On the way back to Luang Prabang, we called in to an elephant sanctuary. Again, I have reservations about the welfare of the elephants, the length of time they spend chained to a post. I don’t like to see them repetitively swaying as it can be a sign that they are unhappy. There was a very friendly baby elephant but I’m sure it was more interested in the food people could give it rather than the person themselves.

Ellie & Angela on the bamboo bridge

That evening we went out to Dyen Sabai, a restaurant overlooking the Nam Khan River, on the opposite side to the main town. In order to get there, we had to pay 5000 Riel each to cross a bamboo bridge over the river. A little tube of lights illuminates the bridge at night. The charge is made to give them the resources to build a new bridge each year flowing the rainy season, during which the turbulent waters of the river carry the bridge away. Seated on a terrace above the river we had a fabulous meal, a fitting last night’s celebration.

Reclining Buddha

Our last day was upon us. Phai met us after breakfast. The minibuses took us round the corner so that we could climb Phousi Hill, offering an excellent vantage point overlooking the town. Climbing the 329 steps to the top, we then had to wait for the Chinese to finish taking their multiple posed pictures before we could get a look in. At the top is the stupa of That Chomsi. There is also the remnant of an anti-aircraft gun, left over from the war. Descending by a different route, we then visited the temples of Wat Visoun, Wat Aham and Wat Xiengthong. While these were very attractive our minds were already beginning to focus on the journey ahead and I, for one, don’t think I got the most out of the visits. Phai was not that animated in his delivery of information, which did not help to maintain interest.

After returning to the hotel for a final clean up, we went to lunch in a lovely terraced restaurant overlooking the Mekong, prior to going to the airport for our flight to Hanoi and onward connection to the UK.

Laos is a lovely country and I can contemplate returning with a view to doing some trekking in the very attractive mountains, perhaps combining it with a trek in North Vietnam. I will have to look into it. We had crammed in a great deal in our three weeks but had really only scratched the surface of all three countries. There is a lot more to see and do, I am sure.

Mags and Sandie having learnt how to pose from the experts!

We had been well looked after throughout by our guides and I was also very impressed with the way everything ran smoothly. We had had few, if any issues. The group behaved itself! Only Pauline gave us a bit of a scare when she slipped off the path during the trek. Mike banged his head and also broke his camera when he stumbled in the cave at Halong Bay. How he kept his calm in such circumstances is remarkable. I know I would not have been happy if I had broken my camera. I cannot speak highly enough about the organisation of Asia Aventura and would recommend them to anybody planning to visit Indochina. If I do go back one day, I will definitely be getting in touch with them.

Thank you to all those who made this trip so successful and thank you to the twenty-two friends who came on it, for their excellent company and good cheer. Memories to treasure!

Cambodia, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

The journey from Vietnam to Cambodia passed without any hitches. Acquiring our entry visas was much more straight forward than it had been entering Vietnam. We came out of the airport to be met by Sophey, our Siem Reap guide. The drive from the airport towards the town revealed a much drier landscape to those we had seen in Vietnam. The fields were covered largely with a post-harvest stubble. On the way to our hotel we stopped off by a large hotel complex to pick up our entrance pass for the many historical sites we were to visit. Sophey recommended we do this now rather than in the morning when the queues can be very long and slow. He was right, we sailed through.

We were staying in the Central Boutique Hotel in the heart of Siem Reap, a town that has grown around the world’s desire to see Angkor Wat. The town was established by the French in the early part of the 20thC, but fell into decline during the 1960s when Cambodia became unwillingly embroiled in the Vietnam War, before experiencing its own civil war, more years of persecution at the hands of Pol Pot and then years of political instability as it tried to rescue and rebuild itself. It wasn’t really until the new millennium that tourism began to return and Siem Reap was able to grow and develop for an increasingly buoyant tourist trade.

We knew we had arrived in a warm country for the reception, bar and restaurant area of the hotel was open at the sides to the elements. Pools of carp separated one area from another. Everything centred on to well-tended gardens with flowering shrubs that attracted butterflies. Two pools were hidden in the gardens. It was hot!

Later that afternoon Sophey collected us to take us to a massage centre where we were to be treated to a massage of our choice – full body, head, neck and shoulders or lower leg and foot. Couples were ushered into rooms together while in others men were grouped together and women were similarly grouped. Wearing loose fitting pyjamas I was pummelled, pulled and twisted for an hour. It was the most incredible massage and I felt so good afterwards. It seems everybody benefited from the experience.

Following the massage, we went off to a family house for dinner. There we met the whole family who cooked and served us a delightful meal while sitting on cushions around a low table.

I slept really well that night and I can only attribute that to the effects of the massage. Perhaps, I might have to have another before I leave Cambodia.

The next morning Sophey came to meet us at the hotel for our day of temple bagging. He carried with him a selfie stick with a rabbit dangling from it. “Follow the rabbit.” Initially, we were due to go to Angkor Wat first, but he assured us that it would be very busy, particularly with lots of Chinese groups who would spoil it for us. He advised us that if we left it until after 11.30am it would be much quieter as the Chinese all go off for lunch from then until about 2.00pm. We bowed to his superior knowledge and his suggestion to visit Banteay Samre Temple first.

The history of these many temples is quite complex and difficult to take in when you are there. You are more consumed by the sheer beauty of them that the stories surrounding them get forgotten. They all stem from about 800AD when a huge building project came about. They were not only temples but also homes to many people that came under their jurisdiction. Angkor Wat, was for example, the world’s first mega city, probably having a population in excess of one million, although that has not yet been ascertained to be true. Initially, they were built as Hindu temples, but the emphasis of religion changed with peoples’ desires and they went through a phase of being Buddhist, returning to Hinduism and in the 14thC returning again to Buddhism.

We approached Banteay Samre via a wide track with trees on either side. There were the occasional stalls selling beautiful leather cut-out pictures of trees and elephants. I would have liked to give them more attention, but I felt confident that we would see more examples at a more appropriate time to buy. Likewise, with some beautiful paintings also for sale. Also, on this walk to the temple we came across a small musical group sitting on a dais playing lovely music. They were all victims of conflict and had one form of disability or another. Their disability did not stop them making beautiful music.

The temple is named after the Samre, an ancient ethnic tribe closely related to the Khmers. Banteay is the Khmer word for citadel. On reaching the temple we discovered that it is not one of the larger ones, but a tightly compact temple with a single tower in the middle. Around the tower is an inner wall with doorways on each side. Then a grassed area, which was probably a moat, before an outer wall with matching doorways. The grey stonework is intricately carved and fearsome beasts stand on guard protecting it from unwanted visitors, or they would if they had not, largely, been decapitated, or had their faces removed by looters. I was particularly fascinated by the carved, circular pillars that covered the windows. They were very intricate and were so well done that it was hard to believe they had not been shaped by machine. We were lucky as we virtually had the whole place to ourselves; there were very few other visitors.

The area behind the stalls was clean and tidy

Leaving Banteay Samre, we headed off to our next temple, but before doing so we stopped at a small roadside market place to watch the women there turning sugar cane into a sweet, gooey toffee by heating it in a wok over a wood fire. When it was ready they would pour the liquid sugar into moulds made out of thin strips of bamboo so that it would set in sweet sized pieces. Sophey talked us through the process. We had a little time to explore the stalls that sold a wide range of foodie and craft products. Behind the stalls were tidy wooden houses on stilts with fruit trees in between. The dusty earth had been swept, giving it a cared for look and made it look very attractive.

Banteay Srei Temple, which translates to citadel of women or citadel of beauty, is dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva. It is largely built out of red sandstone, and, as such, lends itself to lots of intricate stone carving. The detail and complexity of the stone carving is phenomenal. It also struck me as having much more detail in its structure, not being limited to just one, single tower in the middle. There were three, although they were not as large as the single tower at Banteay Samre.  In fact, everything about this temple seemed to be on a slightly smaller scale, and that might have something to do with the fact that it celebrated women.

Most of the carvings were still very intact, including the guards around the central part of the temple. I found this temple more attractive and interesting.

We had spent longer at these two temples than, perhaps, Sophey had intended, so he made a suggested change to the day’s plans. If we were to have lunch and then go to Angkor Wat we would encounter the afternoon crowds. His alternative suggestion was that we went out to Tonle Sap Lake on a boat trip to visit the floating village. That is what we chose to do.

Driving out to a narrow finger of the lake we came across hundreds of boats beached at the water’s edge. The water level was lower than normal, and all the boats were too far out of the water to be any use. We continued to drive further along the finger of water until we came to some boats that that had sufficient water to get going, although it proved to be less than straight forward. The lake at this point is incredibly muddy and the propeller, on the end of a long rod, churned up lots of brown water.

Once we were under way the channel of water weaved its way through a stilted village. The houses were at least 15 feet above ground level. During the rainy season the water comes a long way up the wooden stilts. There was a confusion of wooden stilts and posts. All along the bank were fishing boats with men mending their nets or fixing their boats before their next excursion on to the lake. It was quite a large village and it went on for some considerable distance.

Eventually, the finger of water opened out and we were on a vast expanse of water. The opposite shore was a long way beyond the horizon. Dotted about on the lake were floating houses anchored to the lake bed. Boats bobbed about around them. Elsewhere fishing boats went about their business.

It was not long before we turned around and headed back but instead of going back to where we started the boat dropped us off on the lake side of the village so that we could walk through and see life from the street. And all life is on the street, or, if not on the street, then hanging from balconies or under the houses. Women and children waved to us as we passed while the men were more reserved. Barbecues cooking skewers of meat and fish sent an aroma around the village. Tiny prawns dried on plastic sheets at the side of the road. Hammocks swung gently as villagers relaxed in the late afternoon sun. Children played cheerfully.

About half way down the village I was accosted to buy a packet of exercise books and pencils. The money would go to support the school, which I discovered was taking place underneath one of the houses. Having bought the books and pencils, I now presented them to the teacher. I wonder how many times they have been bought and presented to the teacher? The class that was taking place was an English lesson and the children were learning their colours through recitation and repetition. I was desperate to get involved. They were learning their colours without any reference to objects of those colours. Unfortunately, they looked a little shocked when I tried to get involved as if they were not used to animated teaching. I learnt that this is an extra school that takes place after the end of the normal school day, a time where children can learn English, to, hopefully, give them a head start in life.

Eventually, aware that the rest of the group were waiting for me at the end of the village, I dragged myself away, but would have loved to have had more time to get involved, to roll my sleeves up, and give the children a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

At the end of the village a new temple stood proudly. We had been told how poor this community was and how their lives depended so heavily on good fishing, boat building and repairs, agriculture, and tourism. They not only live on the edge of the lake but also on the edge of economic survival. How the temple was funded I don’t know, but I expect the fact that there is a community of monks, that the funding came from elsewhere.

The bus was waiting for us as we left the village and took us back to Siem Reap. After a quick tidy up we were taken to a restaurant theatre for dinner and a cultural show. Both were excellent. It was remarkable how the female dancers could naturally bend their fingers the wrong way. The male dancers were very athletic. It was an enjoyable end to a very full day.

Another hot, sunny morning greeted us for our last full day in Siem Reap. Today was going to be another full day of temples, with potentially the best to come. Sophey greeted us after breakfast and we headed for the bus to take us to Ta Prohm. However, on the way we exchanged our large bus for a much smaller one that could take us to the various sites. Stone gateways straddle the roads around Angkor Wat that are too narrow for large buses. It was a bit of a tight squeeze.

Unlike a lot of the temples, Ta Prohm has been left very much as it was found, with large trees growing out of the ruins, spreading their roots, serpent like, between and around the stones. Some restoration work is going on but the trees are, largely remaining untouched.

This temple, understandably, was busier than those we visited yesterday. Unfortunately, the majority of visitors were Chinese and they made no bones about making their presence felt. They were noisy, pushed their way around, took control of photographic high spots by having numerous selfies and portraits taken. They were just impossible. I watched one woman walk around the whole temple looking at it through the screen of her tablet. Not once did she look up. Perhaps, if she had, she wouldn’t have bumped into so many people, walked in front of people taking photos and been generally anti-social.

I was absolutely fascinated by this temple and could have stayed there much longer to absorb the atmosphere, to appreciate the artistic shapes that the roots created. It was truly wonderful. These capoc trees help to hold the monument together, while at the same time destroying it. The roots weave their way into cracks and crevices, gradually forcing the stones apart, but, at the same time, acting as the glue that holds them in place. Unfortunately trees do not live forever, and when they die they gradually disintegrate and the walls they supported also crumble.

In amongst the mayhem of roots there were some wonderful examples of sculpted stone, displaying an incredible amount of detail that has managed to survive over 1000 years of weather eroding it. There was clearly a very high level of skill among the stone masons of the period. These were not just single stone block carving but multi-block carvings. Behind the carved facade you could see the joints in the blocks behind.

By the time we were ready to leave Ta Prohm, it was time to capitalise on the Chinese going to lunch, giving us an opportunity to view Angkor Wat without too many people. With Angkor Wat, as with all the temples we visited, we approached from one direction and left by another.

The walk in towards Angkor Wat is quite long, giving us plenty of time to appreciate it as we draw closer. Initially, we had to walk across the narrowest part of the moat on a modern pontoon that led us to the gates of the outer wall. Once through the wall we got a clear view of the temple in all its glory. Sophey was brilliant and kept taking us to 5* photographic points so that we would get the best shots. He was also brilliant in his timing, as this, the largest of all the monuments, was fairly deserted. It meant we could relax and enjoy our visit without having to fight crowds.

Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, the home of the ancient Hindu gods. However, it gradually converted to Buddhism towards the end of the 12thC.  But it is not just a temple, it is a city of symmetry, built on an enormous scale and is believed to be the world’s largest religious building. The whole complex is surrounded by a huge moat 200m wide. The temple holds great significance to the people of Cambodia – it is a national symbol and the source of national pride. It must be for it features on the flag. Unlike other sites in the area, Angkor Wat has remained in constant use and has, therefore, not succumbed to the ravages of time and nature.

Climbing the steps to the main building, we reached a cloistered corridor or gallery. On the wall were bas-reliefs of ancient stories. These went all the way round the whole structure, each side being 187 metres long. They make the Bayeux Tapestry look like a bit of stitching, they are so complex and detailed.

Having marvelled at the bas-reliefs, we entered the next level of the temple, a series of square courtyards with deep pools in the middle, although they were now empty of water. By one of the empty pools a boy monk was offering blessings to visitors.

Then we entered the inner courtyard that surrounded the five towers that represent Mt. Meru. Very steep steps led up to higher galleries but these were closed off to visitors. I can imagine that when it is crowded these could be dangerous.

It was truly magnificent, but there was something missing for me. It did not have the fascination of Ta Prohm with its twisted roots intertwining themselves around the stone. It was too perfect. It is its perfection that makes it such an attraction, though. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. It is a tribute to the architectural skills and the visionary of the people who lived in Cambodia at that time, not unlike the architectural skills and vision that was required to build our own cathedrals at around the same time. I suppose the difference is that with Angkor Wat we did not have to use our imagination; it was all there in front of us, whereas, because all the other temples had been in various stages of decay, we had had to be a little more creative in our thoughts.

It was brilliant and was one of those iconic ‘pinch me’ moments, just to make sure it was real.

By now we were starving, so we took a break for lunch before continuing our temple tour.

Taking great care

The next major temple we were to visit was Angkor Thom but before we did that we stopped briefly at Ta Keo. Not everybody came to see this temple; they were put off by the steep steps, and, indeed, they were incredibly steep and had to be approached with an equal amount of care in going both up and down.

Ta Keo is an unfinished temple. It is built in the ‘mountain’ temple style with several layers approached, as I said before, by steep flights of stairs. Nobody really knows why it was unfinished. It was struck by lightening, which may have been taken as a sign from the gods. Alternatively, it may be because Jayavarman V, who commissioned it, died.

We moved on to Angkor Thom, and from one of Sophey’s 5* photo stops from the edge of the temple area we took photos. As we did so we began to notice a face carved in the stone, then another and another, until we had spotted lots of them. They were incredible. I couldn’t help think that the Reverend Awdry had been here and was inspired by the faces to write his Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

The Bayon Temple at its heart is a complex collection of 54 towers with an amazing collection of 216 demure, smiling faces. As we clambered among the towers and turned corners a stone, smiling face would appear before us. It was beautiful. It was quite crowded on the narrow walkways and on the steep steps leading up and down.

Back at our meeting point, while waiting for a couple of lost members, I organised a group photo among the ruins where each person had to strike a pose.  Am I learning from the Chinese how to monopolise an area? However, we were not interfering with anybody else and their enjoyment of the site as we were in a quiet corner. It was enough just to sit there in the cool shade, looking up at the confusion of stone towers, picking out face after face. The colours of the stone were picked out by the sunshine and contrasted well with those in the shade.

As we left we came across a number of monkeys, including a newly born one playing on one of the walls. They were very endearing and so preoccupied with looking after the baby, they did not worry about us being so close.

On our way back to the coach we walked by another temple and along the terrace of elephants. By now my flip flopped feet were not only filthy but quite tired, having walked a lot throughout the day. I was ready to go back to the hotel and flop.

Having cleaned up, I decided to go and enjoy another massage before I left Cambodia. While it was not quite as good as the one I had had previously, I thought it was well worth the US$5 I paid for it.

That evening, we ate in the hotel for the sake of simplicity.

After a leisurely breakfast we were taken to a craft workshop that housed a number of different crafts under one roof. There was coloured grass weaving, candle making, herb and spice blending, wood carving, stone sculpting, painting, jewellery making, metal crafts and lacquer work. It is a great idea having all of these under one roof, as you would expect it to keep the prices down. Looking around in the shop, I’m not sure that this was the case. It was all very beautiful, but I was very conscious that we had no capacity within our luggage to take anything home.

After lunch Sophey took us to the airport for our flight to Luang Prabang and the last phase of our trip. Sophey had been a brilliant guide. He knew exactly how to adjust the itinerary so that we got the best of our short time in Cambodia. He was knowledgeable and his good command of English allowed him to share his knowledge. He made all the difference and I would hope, that if I returned, I would be able to team up with him again.

 

Hue

After a fourteen hour, overnight, train journey south, we arrived in Hue about half way down the length of Vietnam. We were met at the station by our new guide, Mr Tuong, and taken immediately to a restaurant for breakfast. Following breakfast, we walked down to the Perfume River, where there was a line of dragon headed boats moored along the bank. They were very crudely made with tin cut to a template and fixed together. The smiling faces of a couple and their two children assured us as to which boat we should step on to. As soon as we were all aboard, we were off, down river. The Perfume River gets its name from the fact that during the autumn the blossom from fruit orchards up stream falls into the river, flows downstream, and as it does so gives off a perfume like aroma. This was not the case as we travelled down the river, which was a muddy brown, like so many rivers in Vietnam.

In the centre of the main cabin of our boat was a stall selling a wide range of gifts from ethnic clothing to jewellery, to paper crafts etc. The women in the group spent much of the journey satisfying their urges for some retail therapy, having been largely deprived of such opportunities so far during the trip. While they were engaged in that activity, the men took turns to pilot the boat. Anything was preferable to having the boat captain’s three year old daughter steering the boat.

After some time we berthed to visit Thien Mu Pagoda, a seven tiered pagoda built in 1601. It has a prominent position, perched on a hill overlooking a bend on the north shore of the river. It also, clearly, has some significance with the local population, because there were many Vietnamese families, very smartly dressed, enjoying an outing during the Tet Festival. It was a time for family portraits, for children to be photographed at their best, creating lasting memories.

Beyond the fearsome guardians of the Pagoda, two giants with large, almost real, beards, the site opens out into a lawn area with a temple housing Buddha. Behind is a further lawn area with ornamental ponds, and beyond that pine forest. The temple is home to a particular sect of monks who wear brown or grey habits but stand out from other monks because of their very strange hair style. While the bulk of their head is shaved, a patch is allowed to grow untouched, often from one side of their head.

The car driven by Thieh Quang Duc

The most internationally famous monk from Thien Mu is the Venerable Thieh Quang Duc who drove to Saigon in 1963, got out of his car and sat in the cross- legged lotus position on the ground and meditated while fellow monks doused him in petrol and set fire to his body. The ritual suicide in protest against the anti-Buddhist regime of President Diem captured news headlines around the world. The car that he used to drive to Saigon is on display to one side of the complex.

Returning to our boat, we continued our journey while the women continued their shopping. Eventually coming ashore on the south bank, we disembarked to find some bicycles waiting for us. We had to ride these in order to reach our accommodation for the night at Hue Ecolodge. This was a fabulous place, set in its own spacious grounds with trees and shrubs. The rooms were all individual bungalows, beautifully furnished. Not only did they have an en suite but also a private cobbled yard which also had a shower in it.

Simon showing off!

After freshening up, we again took to the bikes for a ride around the village. These bikes were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The seats were all fairly low and not in the most comfortable position for riding. They had seen some use. Nevertheless, we enjoyed, not only the exercise, but also seeing village life, which always seems to take place outside. Most people were enjoying being at home, with families, for the festival.

Returning to where we first met our bikes by the river, we were directed to an open dining area all laid out for a cookery lesson. We should have visited a market during our river trip earlier in the day, but because of the Tet Festival, the market was not open. Hence, our hosts had acquired all the ingredients we needed for our cookery session.

Donning pinafores we learnt how to mix the ingredients for spring rolls and the technique for rolling them. Then we set about making our own. Some, and I won’t name names, even made this simple task a competition to make the fastest, the best shaped etc. When we had exhausted all the materials, the freshly made spring rolls were whisked away and we learnt how to mix the ingredients for a second dish.

By now it was mid afternoon, and we had not yet had any lunch. Thankfully, the spring rolls were returned to the table, cooked, along with a great many more dishes, which we enjoyed.

After lunch we were joined by some blind and visually impaired young people who gave us head and shoulder massages followed by lower leg and foot massages. Just what we needed before we headed back to the lodge on our bikes. There we took full advantage of the tranquillity of our surroundings, either by the pool or in the comfort of our air-conditioned rooms.

The following morning we had to leave this wonderful place. We could have done with at least another night there. Our itinerary dictated that we had to leave, so we boarded the waiting coach.

Our first destination was Tu Duc’s tomb. The story surrounding Tu Duc is far more interesting than the actual place, which, in places, is quite run down despite it being one of the most popular and impressive of the royal mausoleums.  Renovations are taking place.

The tomb, constructed between 1864 and 1867.  Emperor Tu Duc designed it himself to use before and after his death. From the entrance, a path leads to Luu Khiem Lake. The tiny island to the right, Tinh Khiem, is where Tu Duc used to hunt small game. Across the water to the left is Xung Khiem Pavilion, where he would sit with his concubines, composing or reciting poetry. Hoa Khiem Temple is where Tu Duc and his wife, Empress Hoang Le Thien Anh, were worshipped. The larger throne was for the empress; Tu Duc was only 153cm tall. Around the lake shore is the Honour Courtyard. A guard of elephants, horses and diminutive mandarins (even shorter than the emperor) protect the route to the Stele Pavilion, which shelters a 20-tonne stone tablet. The tomb, enclosed by a wall, is on the far side of a tiny lagoon. It’s a drab monument and the emperor was never interred here although the paving slabs are uneven in places as a result of people trying to find where he lies with his treasure. Where his remains were buried is not known. To keep it secret from grave robbers, all 200 servants who buried the king were beheaded. Tu Duc lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess: he had 104 wives and countless concubines, though no offspring.

Moving on, we headed for the Forbidden Citadel, stopping briefly to watch the making of scented joss sticks at the side of the road.

Approaching the Citadel

The Forbidden Citadel is a walled fort surrounded by a moat. It was built in the early 19th Century. Behind the walls was the Purple City, the former home of the royal family, at a time when Hue was the capital from 1802 to 1945. Modelled on the bigger Forbidden Citadel of Beijing, there were a number of palaces for each of the royal family, Nugyen Dynasty. It must have been fantastic in its heyday. Today it looks very sad, with only about ten of the original 160 buildings surviving.

During the Vietnam War the Citadel was occupied by the Viet Cong, taking advantage of its strong walls, upon which they mounted many guns. The Americans were ordered not to damage such an important remnant of Vietnamese history, but the more casualties they received from the soldiers within the protective walls, the less caring they became. In the end the American attacked with force, bombing indiscriminately, killing many Viet Cong and destroying the vast majority of the palaces. For much of the area, there only remains charred walls, with weeds growing from cracks. The ground still bears the scars with bomb craters. It was sad to see it in such a state and I could not help but feel anger towards America and what it had done to this country, to these happy, smiling people, and for what?

Renovation work

Work is taking place to restore some of the buildings, but it is an impossible job with very limited financial resources. It will take for ever.

Leaving the Citadel behind we were taken to the airport in time to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and the next stage of our Vietnam adventure. We said goodbye to our guide, who’s English and diction had not been anywhere near as good as Mr T’s, and, as a result, his ability to enthuse fell short of expectation. When you have two very different guides, it makes you realise just how important they are in giving you the best possible experience.

Ninh Binh, Tam Coc & Halong Bay

Ninh Binh and karst scenery

The drive to Ninh Binh became more interesting the closer we got. Having left the mountains behind us we travelled through a very flat landscape of expansive paddy fields, big enough for machinery to plough and prepare rather than bent double men and women. Great sluggish rivers cut their way through the flat landscape. At various points along their length, large barges were moored, home for the Tet Festival. Normally these barges ply their way up and down stream carrying a wide variety of cargoes, but mainly sand and limestone for building purposes. Then, out of the haze, enormous towers of vertical rock emerged. There were no preparatory hills gradually increasing in size, just great lumps of limestone karst scenery. As soon as it appeared, it disappeared again, making way for more flat, watery paddy fields. Again, the karst scenery reappeared and by the time we reached Ninh Binh, the town was surrounded by these strange outcrops. The view from our room on the 7th floor of the hotel looked out on to the building below, dwarfed by the towering blocks of limestone. That night we ate in at the Nam Hoa Hotel.

Phat Diem

The following morning Mr T took us, on our bus, to visit Phat Diem Cathedral. This area of Vietnam has quite a significant Catholic population and the landscape, en route to Phat Diem, is littered with churches. The landscape was now very flat with massive paddy fields disappearing as far as the eye could see, all fed by a network of canals. Much of this area had once been submerged but with the careful management of a canal system the land was reclaimed. Thousands of tons of limestone had to be transported to create a firm foundation for the cathedral, built in the late 1800s. The stone for the construction had to be transported some 120 miles along with timber from hundreds of ironwood trees. Although it is a cathedral, upturned pagoda styled roofs were placed on top of the towers, giving it a unique appearance.

Before we entered the Cathedral we could hear singing. A wedding was taking place. The atmosphere inside was relaxed and the singing beautiful. Obviously, we kept a respectful distance from the ceremony but nobody seemed to mind us being there and taking photographs.  All along the nave, huge ironwood pillars supported the wooden vaulted ceiling. The area behind the altar was ornately gold the centre piece being a statue of Mary and baby Jesus with a blue neon halo and ‘Ave Maria’ above her head. It was all slightly gaudy.

From outside, more singing could be heard, and now it was competing with the wedding ceremony. There was a funeral taking place. It seemed strange that there should be two completely different services competing with each other. Walking by the funeral, it looked as if it might be that of a priest as there were so many frocked clergy participating.

Heading back towards the limestone karst scenery we next visited Dinh and Le Temples, a large complex of temples celebrating the kings of the Dinh and Le Dynasties of the 10th Century when Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam for a period of 41 years. Mr T gave us the low down on its history but there was far too much to take in and absorb.  The temples are all that remains of a much larger complex known as the Citadel.

After lunch we headed down to an area known as Tam Coc (Halong Bay on Land) for a boat trip. Waiting on the water were a number of sampans, largely paddled by women, to take us on a journey through the quiet waters with limestone cliffs rising vertically above them. Initially, we paddled through channels among reeds. As we did so, we came across a bride and her groom, in full wedding gear, standing on a sampan while a photographer on another sampan took their pictures.

It was such a peaceful way of travelling with just the rhythmic sound of the paddles rippling the water. Egrets perched in colonies on the branches of trees by the water’s edge. We followed the line of a limestone cliff to its end and then turned a corner so that we now had cliffs on both sides. The scenery was so dramatic in every direction. Our eyes were drawn to the rocky cliffs surrounding us for we knew there were monkeys in the area and we were keen to spot some.

Further on we came to a low cave that just allowed us access to its darker corners before the roof became too low. Emerging from the cave we looked up and there we spotted some large black monkeys with, what looked like, white nappies around their bottoms. They were Delacour’s Langurs, a seriously endangered species. There are only about 250 left in the world and during the course of our observation, we saw about 12. They have extremely long tails which help give them balance as the nimbly run across the limestone cliffs.

The reason there are so few left in the world is that they have been hunted vigorously for meat and for their bones and organs for medicine. Vietnam has a reputation for not looking after its wild life but it is beginning to realise that if it does not look after what it has got it will lose them for ever. Rangers are employed by the national parks to oversee their protection. Unfortunately, its close proximity to China means that there is always going to be a market, and if the rewards are great enough there is always someone willing take the risk. We really enjoyed watching them watching us. Hopefully, they will survive and begin to flourish in protected areas.

Sampan driver

Tearing ourselves away, we began to head back. The lady paddling our sampan complained of sore hands, so I offered to take over. Carefully swapping places with her, I took the oars. The action is the opposite to what we normally do in a rowing boat. You face the way you are going, so instead of pulling the oars through the water, you push them. Believe it or not, that is quite a difficult concept for your brain to appreciate and you make little or no progress through the water. When I did begin to get the hang of it I started going round in circles. I think it is fair to say, that I did not get the hang of it. It seemed only right and proper to hand the oars back to the expert and let her guide us back to the jetty.

It was a brilliant trip, so much more so because we had seen the Delacour’s Langur.

The next day we left Ninh Binh and headed towards Halong Bay. However, before we left, there was just time to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the early morning market that took place in the street either side of our hotel. It started very early, long before we were up and about. although we could hear them from our rooms. You could sense the excitement of the upcoming Tet Festival, very similar to the excitement that takes place in our own shopping streets in the lead up to Christmas.

Extracting pearls from oysters

I was really looking forward to Halong Bay as it had been on my wish list for many years. Before we boarded our boat we had to visit a pearl emporium where we were shown how the irritation was placed in the flesh of the oyster in order for a pearl to form. We also observed how the pearl was taken out. I was amazed to learn that a single oyster could go through the pearl producing process three times. Having watched the process, we were then ushered into the shop. That is when I switched off. It was large, very well staffed with sales people everywhere. Unfortunately, pearls leave me cold and the prices asked added to my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t really need this distraction, this delay. I wanted to get on the water and sail among the towering pillars of Halong Bay.

In order to get to the jetty, we had to drive across a causeway which led to an area of development, with several hotels in various stages of completion. A lot of money is being invested in developing this area, although some of the sites appeared to have ground to a halt before they were finished.

Heading out to Halong Bay

On the water were hundreds of white painted junks of all sizes. Some were more luxurious than others. They were all white. This is a relatively recent innovation for before the junks were all natural, wood coloured. They look OK white but as white boats the paintwork needs to be touched up regularly, or they begin to look tatty. If you look closely the quality of paint work is not particularly good. Most people prefer them as they were. There are a number of theories as to why the decision was made to paint them. Some say it was to create job opportunities, others that had seen white cruise liners and were inspired. A local paint manufacturer wanted to boost his sales so persuaded the authorities, probably with an incentive, to change the laws. One of the problems with nothing but white boasts that they are difficult to see in a sea mist, and Halong Bay has its fair share of foggy days.

We were to have two junks, with half the group sleeping on each. Tenders took us and our luggage out to our junks moored in the middle of the harbour. As soon as we were aboard the tenders were moored up to the junk and off we went.

As soon as we were out of the harbour a gourmet lunch of fresh fish and prawns was served. Outside, towers of rock rose vertically out of the sea, and the further we went the better it got.  As good as the food was it was impossible to concentrate on it as the scenery unfolded outside. Soon the meal was over, and we were able to go up on deck and take in the amazing scene. Sadly, it remained cloudy and we did not get the blue sky reflected in the water. Instead, we got dark, brooding, moody pillars of rock rising threateningly out of dark waters. It was so atmospheric.

The entrance to Luon Cave

Weaving our way through narrow passages of water, we were not alone. There were many more junks on the water heading out to our eventual destination, a mooring area across the water from Titov Island. Once we were moored we boarded our tender to take us to a landing stage before the entrance to Luon Cave. here, we had a choice of either hiring two-man canoes or being taken there on a large sampan. Most of us chose the canoe option.

Now I have done a fair bit of canoeing in my time and I like to think I know what I am doing. But these were not Canadian or sit in canoes; they were sit on ones. Deciding to take the rear seat I gently eased myself on to my canoe. Unfortunately, I misjudged my positioning and planted my backside on the edge of the small back support. This tipped me back and the stern of the canoe under water with my backside following. I wasn’t worried about my own self-being but I was concerned that my wallet, with passport, was getting a good soaking, along with my camera that had succumbed to gravity. My pride was a little dented as I found it impossible to haul myself back up. It took some effort from me and those helping me to haul me up, while everybody else around me was laughing far too heartily. Having assumed the right position, Angela then nimbly took her seat and we paddled off out of the public glare. Once away from the jetty I could check that my camera still worked. It did. Phew!

Golden Monkeys

Luon Cave is a low arch leading into a hidden lagoon of enormous proportion. Once through, you are faced with a circle of vertical, or near vertical rock and vegetation, which enhanced, yet muted, the voices of the people paddling around. We paddled fairly close to the cliffs in the hope of seeing some of the golden monkeys that are reputed to live around the lagoon. We were just about to leave, when we saw some, so we paddled across to take a closer look as they sat in a tree watching us watch them.

When we returned to the jetty I was accosted by an American lady who thanked me for giving her the best laugh ever and a lasting memory of me floundering half in and half out of Halong Bay. My pleasure!

View from the top of Titov Island

From the jetty our tender took us across to Titov Island where we were able to take the steps up to the summit for a panoramic view, or not. Despite feeling very uncomfortable in the trouser department, I decided to climb the 420 steps for the view. It was well worth it as it gave a fabulous impression of the vastness of Halong Bay and just a fraction of its 1600 islands. It was stunning and I could have spent more time up there just absorbing every detail of the view.

Back on our boat I spread my money out on a towel, my passport, dried my camera and discovered that my battery power banks no longer functioned. It could have been worse.

That night we had an absolutely fabulous meal that included oysters, giant prawns, fish and a lot more besides, with the lights of various boats shimmering across the water. Afterwards it was great to sit up on deck with a beer in hand and look across to the other boats and listen to their laughter as others, like us, enjoyed being in Halong Bay.

I am lost for words!

The next morning, after breakfast, our tender took us across to the jetty on Bo Hon Island to visit a cave system called Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave). Climbing the initial flight of steps gave us yet another superb aerial view of the bay below. However, I don’t think I was prepared for the enormity of the cavern we entered. It was huge. It was broken down into three enormous chambers all suitably lit with the main features highlighted. The stalactites, if you release your imagination, form shapes resembling Buddha or a large tortoise. But by far the most famous, and the easiest to understand is the giant phallus standing proudly and glowing a dangerous shade of red. It is in serious need of some soothing cream. Funnily enough, when you walk on the other side of this feature it looks nothing like a giant penis.

Our time in Halong Bay was coming to an end. Once we had finished in the cave our tender took us back to our junks and we soon set off on the return journey to Halong City. It was still grey and murky but it did not diminish the splendour or the impact of the rocky pillars. It may have diminished their features but they were swathed in far more atmosphere.

Our bus was waiting to return us to Hanoi where we were to board the night train to Hue and embark on the next stage of our Indochina adventure.

Mr T

Sadly, it was also time for us to say our farewells to Mr T. I have had a great many guides over the years, but few have been better than Mr T. He endeared himself to the group with his attention to duty, giving us information that helped us to understand the intricate history of Vietnam, his jokes at the expense of the Chinese, his excellent organisation, his care and his smiley personality. There was visible emotion as he hugged each of us in turn. When he left us he was heading back home on his motorbike to join his wife and children, to celebrate Tet, before starting all over again with a new group. If I go back to Vietnam, and I certainly hope I do, I would like to think that Mr T and I could work together again.