Friday, November 29, 2013

A Solo backpackers tour of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Vietnam and Cambodia fascinated me for different reasons,Vietnam being the only Country to have defeated a World military superpower  America while Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex is a World heritage site  and a  trekkers paradise. Research on the internet gave me a fascinating insight into the tourist attraction and history of both Vietnam and Cambodia.Finally decided to tour these two Country's in December 2013.Began my "Solo Adventure travel" by booking an  air-ticket with "Thai Airways"  through "Farshak Travels(Prabhadevi)" on Thursday(11-7-2013). The itinerary being a round trip flight from Mumbai(Dep 30-11-2013)  to Hanoi(Arr 1-12-2013)  via a transit stop in Bangkok.End of my tour was to be  in Phnom Penh(Tuesday 17-12-2013)  finally arriving in  Mumbai on Tuesday( 17-12-2013) .The total cost of the air ticket was  Rs 38,364.Later in mid-October applied for a"Vietnam and Cambodia Visa" through the same "Farshak Travels", the visa fees being Rs 7,033 for a Vietnam Visa and  Rs 3,729 for a  Cambodia Visa.The grand total for air ticket and Visa fees finally amounted to Rs 49,126. The exchange rate  of U.S $ to Indian Rupee was Rs 63.5 rupees =1 U.S $.
"Indira Gandhi Park" in Hanoi with the statue of "Emperor Ly Thai To",founder of Hanoi city..

Sunday morning arrival at Hanoi.."Vietnam Airlines bus ".

VIETNAM:-  City's and tourist sites.
Departure Mumbai(Saturday(30-11-2013) and arrival Hanoi(Sunday(1-12-2013):- Left my home at Prabhadevi at approx 1915 hrs and boarding a taxi reached Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport at approx 1945 hrs.A huge queue to enter the airport through "Gate 7" indicated  the strict security scrutiny and large number of tourists.Finished all my formalities by 2100 hrs, surprised that the airport immigration resembled a local bus-stop queue due to a heavy rush of tourists.After Immigration check entered the departure terminal and was transformed into a plush luxury World of "DUTY FREE SHOPPING".I had last visited this airport in 2010 on a European tour  and was surprised at the drastic renovation of the "Duty Free Terminal", a World-Class avenue of luxury shopping.Honestly, window-shopping at the "Duty Free Shops" was my first tourist site, a real experience in "Amchi Mumbai".At 2240 hrs Boarded the "Thai TG 318 " flight through Gate nos 7. Got into "54H" seat and the flight was on schedule.Arrived at Bangkok airport and had a transit stay at the airport to board the connecting flight to Hanoi.Boarded the Thai airways (TG 560) at 0740 hrs  and finally reached "Noibai Airport" in Hanoi at  0945 hrs.After the Visa  and immigration check the anxiety over arrival of my baggage made me nervous as i waited for approx half an hour for my small bag to arrive.A folly on my part as i should have carried this 9 Kg bag personally on the plane.Made my way out of the exit  towards the "Vietnam Airlines" van. The Van driver agreed to drop me at "Lakeside Hostel" for a payment of 5 U.S $'s, a reasonable charge. The van finally got full, akin to the "Share a cab" system  prevalent  in Mumbai .We finally drove away from the airport.A young  lady student travelling with her mother picked up a conversation with me and as usual, although a "Solo Tour" i was not alone.Mai Phuong Le  was from Saigon and in Hanoi for a short holiday.She wanted to become a teacher in English language and observing  her skill in operating the "I-Phone"  in a moving van  was sheer jugglery. We became "Face-Book" friends, my first acquaintance in Vietnam.The route  surprised me as i found Hanoi sparkling clean and the roads in perfect condition,far from the images of  one of history's worst bombardment's during the "Vietnam War(American War)".Hanoi resembled a "First World City"  in its maintenance and huge multi-storeyed skyscrapers seem to be the new addition in this city's skyline in the suburbs.We finally reached the city and all the passengers alighted the van, myself getting off at  "Lake Side hostel".
Pet parrot chained outside street shop near "Lake Side Hostel".
                                                                                                                                          Thanks to the   "INTERNET" my booking was confirmed  and had also received touring advice from the proprietor Mr Viet.Anh..On arrival  i checked in to my "Backpackers common dormitory Lounge",allotted "Bed Nos 7" in the mixed-common dormitory, clean and neat.Only problem, it was on the 5th floor with no services of a elevator . Akin to trekking it was a tiresome walk up the stairs since i was used to elevators in my residence in  Mumbai.It resembled a European hostel in format and design,besides,most of  the guests were  Europeans, at times women outnumbering the men occupants.After a quick hot water bathe  made my way onto the street and began my sightseeing and camera  picture photography. Just outside the hostel was a beautiful red parrot chained to a post, the first time i saw such a sight on a city street.The owner of this pet  parrot owned a small shop and also had a pair of chihuahua dogs.Even at night this parrot was always kept chained while people ate at a street-side cafe near this shop.This was the only pet parrot i observed in entire Hanoi that i toured, the most favoured bird being the bulbul.  
"Ngoc Son Temple". Entrance.
Strolled around Hoan Kiem lake which is also called the lake of the restored sword, the heart of Hanoi. Visited "Ngoc Son Temple" situated on a islet on Hoan Kiem lake and connected by a short wooden bridge. The entrance fee to the temple was 20,000 Dong/person. Exchange rate is 1 U.S Dollar = 21,012 Dongs.A very scenic location and a historic temple.From the temple strolled around the surrounding  area and my tour research work made  walking a pleasure.Barring the  hostel staff and Vietnamese concerned with the "Tourism Industry" seems the average Vietnamese doesn't speak English language. Presume most speak or understand French and hence  asking for right directions was akin to solving "McKenna's" gold treasure map with the guide map!Thanks to my study and the hostel owners fluent English and help that i managed to sight- see a few places on my arrival. Booked tickets at "Thang Long Water puppet Theatre" for the 2100 hrs show of "Vietnamese Water puppetry Show" ,costing 1,00,000 Dongs(5 U.S $ approx), a mandatory recommendation by every tourist guide book  and professional backpacker.
"Hoan Kiem" lake in Hanoi.
                                                                                                                         Later visited the St Joseph's cathedral but since it was locked  could just see it from the exterior.As usual tried some local Vietnamese street food and found it delicious, especially their variety of  sweet breads and pork sausages.Made inquiries about "Dog Meat" but as usual, language was a barrier and  locals are embarrassed to speak to foreigners about this rare Hanoians delicacy, another being "Snake Meat".Akin to Hongkong Chinese the Vietnamese also have the habit of keeping "Caged singing birds" outside their shops or near their workplace.Walked past  the Hanoi Opera and later came towards the Indira Gandhi park which has a dominating large statue  of the Nguen Emperor  Ly Thai To who moved his capital to Hanoi. Young boys and girls  were singing songs for a charity purpose in the park. In that same park  a group of young boys were demonstrating  skating stunts, the type seen on extreme sports on television . This park occupies a very prominent place in Hanoi, centrally located and a gathering place for the young and old of the city.The "Lake Side Hostel" provided  "FREE INTERNET" service to its guests, the first time that i experienced this privilege in a hotel or hostel.
"NIGHT MARKET" in "Old Quarter".Traffic closed for vehicles.

"Lake Side Hostel" reception.
Later in the night visited the "NIGHT MARKET" held on Friday's, Saturday's and Sunday's between 2100hrs to 2300hrs., The entire road  in the "Old Quarter" closed to traffic for the purpose of the "Night Market". The entire length of the street was lined with stalls selling different wares including food-stalls.The narrow street was packed with people, mostly tourists.Tasted a local sweet dish, the equivalent of a "Falooda" costing 15,000 dongs, something different. There were numerous street side stalls selling various food and drink products, the best situated just outside "Lake Side Hostel".After Hongkong, the next best "Sea-Food  restaurant" i saw was just outside my hostel on the footpath. The footpath stall had a aquarium with live crabs and prawns for customers ,besides a variety of exotic sea -food , the prices beyond purchase of the average "Backpacker Tourist". A large cooked crab sold for 30 U.S dollars while a single cooked "Tiger Prawn " cost 10 U.S dollars, foreigners normally  charged double  the local price depending on the bargaining power of the tourist. Earlier in the evening i had purchased two T-shirts thinking they were a bargain only to realize on further inquiries that i had paid double the price ! Tasted the famous and most Common Hanoian dish called  "Pho" at a street side stall near my hostel  , a large bowl of soup filled with rice noodles, spices and herbs with some meat. Excellent and something different compared to normal Indian Chinese food that is cooked in India, tasted more like the "Singapore Hot pot".
Hanoi's famous "Street Cafe's".
                                                                                    After my dinner strolled along the Hoan Kiem lake garden path, absolutely serene with the temple bridge lit up in bright red At 2100 hrs entered the "Thang Long water puppet theatre" and was lucky to get a good centre  seat, close to the stage. The play was in Vietnamese language with a live orchestra performing folk songs next to the "Water Stage" while the puppets enacted their stories on the water.It was akin to synchronized swimming performed in a swimming pool except that these were non-human puppets.The puppets are controlled by their human masters  behind a screen, invisible to the audience.. Excellent and perfect harmony making the viewer feel that the puppets are actual humans , nothing artificial, brilliant. After the show the human puppet masters emerge from the stage curtain and thank the audience, akin to a theatre concert performance.
"WATER PUPPET SHOW" at "Thanglong Water puppet Theatre".
                                                                                                                                        Now realize the reasons for this show being a huge success.The "Asian book of Records" has awarded  the Thang Long water puppet theatre a certificate of merit for hosting this show continuously since 1994, a total of 19 years.Three to four shows are held daily since 1994 in this theatre, a traditional folk theatre synonymous with the city of Hanoi.It was a one hour show and at approx 2230 hrs was back in my hostel, a short walk from the theatre."Lake side Hostel" is appropriate to its name, a classic hostel situated in the heart of the tourist locality of Hanoi.The night was cold and as usual, a partial sleepless night due to "Jet lag" and change of residence.
"Dragon Boat Cruise" along Ha Long Bay.World's modern natural wonder.

Monday(2-12-2013) Ha Long  Bay Tour :-  As usual a early riser.Washed myself in the bathroom and after a hot "Jacuzzi shower"  dressed up and made my way to the hotel lobby.At 0600 hrs  everyone was asleep and and i had to wake up the hotel staff to get the main door open! Made my way out of the hotel onto Hoan Kiem lake, excellent weather, not a very cold morning. Hanoians were busy exercising themselves on the lakefront, some jogging while some were just walking.
"BADMINTON", a very popular  recreational sport in  Hanoi.
                                                        The street had early morning cyclists instead of motorcyclists and a group of Hanoins were practicing "Tai-Chi"  in a garden near the lake. Badminton seemed to be a favorite sport and saw young as well as elderly Hanoians playing badminton in empty spaces near the road which would later be filled with vehicles later in the day. Observed for the first time the "National Sport" of Vietnam being played by a group of youngsters, the sport of "Jianji"  called "Da Cau" in Vietnamese. The playing court is similar to a "Volley-ball" or "Badminton Court" with players on opposite sides kicking a weighted shuttle cock, using all parts of their body barring their hands.
Vietnam's national sport "Da Cau". akin to badminton.
                                                                     The "Shuttle-cock" is called a "Jianzi" in Chinese. Having seen a new sport for the first time in my life walked along observing the locals. After a brief walk near the lake made my way to a street side cafe and had a breakfast of "Pho bo" , the common Hanoian staple diet. Roadside cafe's in Hanoi  resemble the street cafe's of Paris , a legacy of the French colonization of Hanoi.After breakfast made my way to the hostel collected my backpack and waited in the lobby for the tourist bus to Halong Bay.The bus arrived at approx 0750 hrs and i was the first tourist to be picked, the bus next making its way towards other hotels to collect other  tourists.The next stop was near St Joseph's cathedral and i managed to visit the cathedral, a huge church that resembled Gloria church in Byculla(Mumbai). After collecting a few tourists the bus meandered its way through the jig-saw puzzle of "Old Quarter" collecting passengers at the various hotels and hostels situated  in this precinct.
Typical morning breakfast of local Hanoians.
                                                                                                       After collecting a total of 22 tourists our mini van headed towards Halong bay.Our tourist guide Mr Thang  explained the tour agenda with  most of the tourists  on the bus opting  for a 2-day tour while just three of us were on a single day tour.Hence on arrival at Halong bay the three of us would be allotted a different tour group ."Packaged Group Tours" are excellently organized with good co-ordination between various tour groups although commercial rivals for the "Tourist Dollar".It was a pleasant 3 1/2 hour  drive to Halong bay and as usual picked up a conversation with my co-tourist.The entire group of tourists were foreigners, mostly Caucasians and a few of Asian origin.
"Boat Hawkers" selling fruits on our "Dragon Boat".

On arrival at Ha Long bay  our group split and the three of us, two women and myself  joined another tour group "Vietsea tourist Co Ltd"whose guide had the same namesake as our previous , Mr Thang.
We boarded our luxury launch at the pier  and began our "Dragon cruise" of  Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin with a area of approx 1500Sq Kms  and consists of a total of  1,969 islands jutting like trees out of the sea, a amazing sight.It is a UNESCO World heritage sight and in a recent World survey was voted as one of  the new 7 wonders of the World. The  1997 James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies" was supposed to be filmed in Ha Long bay but the site location was later changed  to "Phuket Bay" in Bangkok due to political reasons.In fact  Saigon(Ho Chi Minh City) was selected as a major location for the shooting of "Tomorrow Never Dies" but ultimately shifted to Bangkok. This fact explains the beauty and splendour of Vietnam and especially Ha Long bay.Lunch was served on board the launch as soon as we began sailing on the calm sea.Lunch was served in Vietnamese style and i was seated with a  family of Thai  tourists of Israeli origin, as it was 5 tourists to a table.An excellent lunch of various dishes and digested the same with a pint of the local Hanoian beer. Some of the limestone cliffs had bizarre shapes and hence a name like "Fighting Cock" island, two islands representing the faces of two cocks facing each other in combat.  
"KAYAKING" popular recreation on "Floating Village" in Halong Bay.
                                                                              Another weird formation was a island jutting  out of the sea akin to a drill rig platform on support legs, absolutely fascinating.Our first stop was at the "Floating village" situated in the midst of the limestone cliffs, complete houses floating on bamboo logs and tin drums.All the tourist launches have a brief halt at the "floating village" for the benefit of organized water sports like "Kayaking" and motor boat rides near a cave in one of the limestone cliffs.As a former Marine engineer sailor, water sports to me was akin to asking a jockey if he enjoyed horse-back riding ! I was forced to "Kayak" as it was included in my tour itinerary and hence didn't want to waste a paid entertainment.For the first time in my life  kayaked "Solo" and did a good job without crashing into other kayaks or boats as the tourist traffic was heavy. Due to "Low Tide" rowing tourist boats couldn't venture into a cave.At approx 1500 hrs after a long stay at the water sports floating barge   we  headed towards our final destination  "Thien Cung Cave(Heavenly Palace)".
Entrance to "Thien Cung Caves" in Halong Bay.
                                    On arriving at the jetty we had to climb a few steps to enter the cave.The view of Ha Long bay from the entrance point of the cave was fascinating, the weather bright and clear and the sea absolutely calm.On entering the cave it was transportation into a different World of Stalactites and Stalagmites.The entire cave had artificial lighting and the natural rock formations  was electrifying, reminding me to a lesser extent of the "Batu Dark Caves" in Malaysia.Some of the stalagmites and stalagmites had odd human and animal shapes, depending on the interpretation of the human mind and imagination.Guide  Mr Thang explained  us some of these bizarre formations and the importance of the turtle as a sacred  reptile in Vietnamese culture.Near the exit of the cave there was a artificial mould of a turtle  on which people donated money as  good luck On this tour i had an engrossing conversation with a veteran ex-pilot  Mr Ian from Australia and a Indian origin Canadian lady Miss Sweetie. Mann from Canada. Our Halong bay tour was finally over and we boarded the launch to sail back to the harbour.On reaching the harbour we boarded our luxury A/c mini van and headed back to Hanoi. Enroute we stopped at a tourist shopping mall .
Vietnam's infamous alcoholic drink, "COBRA WINE".
                                                                                                  Relished myself on the classic "Vietnam hotdog(Pork sausage/long bread)" and later window -shopped around the luxury mall.In the liquor section spotted the famous "COBRA SNAKE WINE" of Vietnam.A cobra with a scorpion in its mouth was bottled in wine, akin to pickle in a jar, absolutely bizarre and fascinating.The cost of a bottle of snake wine was 20 U.S dollars , very cheap and hence  i fear for the future of these snakes in Vietnam.Articles on the famous snake cuisine of Vietnam states that all these edible poisonous and non-poisonous snakes are bred in farms akin to poultry. This statement  seems exaggerated as breeding snakes on a commercial basis akin to cattle or poultry is highly impossible and i am sure that a majority of these snakes are trapped in the forests.In the same mall spotted a chained cat for the first time in my life and hope that that cat akin to most dogs was not on a menu of someone's lunch or dinner.We finally reached Hanoi city at approx 2100 hrs and i was the last person to be dropped at my hostel, end of a memorable exploration in culture and tourism of Hanoi.
"HO CHI MINH" Mausoleum in front of historic  Ba Dinh Square  in  Hanoi.

Tuesday(3-12-2013) :- Had a sleepless night although dog tired and hence got up at 0530 hrs and had my wash and bathe.Dressed up and as usual opened the hotel lock and made my way into the street. Early in the morning Hoan Kiem lake area is a transformed locality with fitness fanatics and leisure sports hobbyists busy in their agenda. Badminton is the most popular street sport in Hanoi akin to Cricket in Mumbai and Taichi  a common early morning ritual.. At the main city depot just across the street alongside Hoan Kiem lake inquired about bus services to "Ho Chi Minh mausoleum" and was guided to bus nos 9.At approx 0630 hrs bus nos 9 began  its journey , the ticket to the mausoleum being 5,000 dongs.The bus was almost empty and it was a short journey to "Ho Chi Minh" mausoleum situated in Ba Dinh Square.
A Guard controlling the disciplined Hanoians queuing to visit the Mausoleum.
                                                                           The conductor guided me as to the stop and on alighting was surprised at the spaciousness and maintenance of the entire complex, according to historians a replica of the tomb of Lenin in Moscow.As i was very early decided to have some Vietnamese coffee at the coffee shop near the Mausoleum complex.The coffee was very strong and served with a glass of hot liquid which was  lemon tea.This coffee recipe was again something new to me and Vietnamese food and beverages was a experiment in my  cuisine, something new, although i am familiar with "Chinese food", most notably Singaporean food. Ba Dinh Square on which the Mausoleum is built was the location where the " Declaration of Independence" was read by Chairman Ho Chi Minh on September 2nd 1945 establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.There was a long queue for visiting the mausoleum and being  early was  ahead in the queue. At exactly 0800 hrs the entry to the mausoleum began and photography was strictly prohibited. I was reprimanded by a guard for photographing the mausoleum externally.At the entry to the Mausoleum were two guards at attention with bayonets akin to Statue.Every Vietnamese visitor paying homage was well dressed, in their best attire akin to a religious gathering, myself being the rare foreigner tourist in the crowd.On entering the Mausoleum had to walk up to the first floor in the queue and pass along the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lying in the coffin with his hands placed in front, very life-like as shown in photo's and portraits.There were four guards guarding the coffin and the crowd of people just pass along the coffin in a single queue, very systematic and orderly. The gardens surrounding the mausoleum have almost 250 different plant and flower species collected from different regions of Vietnam.
Ho Chi  Minh's "House on Stilts".
                                                                                 After the Mausoleum i next visited "Ho Chi Minh" house on stilts and his estate, a enormous museum complex.Saw his bedroom, study, cars gifted from U.S.S.R and France and his working office.Beautiful large carp fish inhabited the pond next to his house, the same fed by tourists.A peacock in a cage was the only aviary bird on display as Vietnamese love keeping caged birds.Next visited the "Ho Chi Minh Museum", the entrance fee being 25,000 Dongs. The museum was  as usual a propaganda on the progress and method of Soviet socialism and the Vietnamese  fight for Independence from Foreign powers.
At approx 0930 hrs  on  completion of my tour of "Ho Chi Minh" mausoleum and museum began on a marathon walk towards  "Quan Thanh Temple".The last time i had indulged in such a walk was during my solo tour of London city in 2010.With just the assistance of the guide map i began asking for instructions in "Sign Language".On reaching a local street restaurant saw the chefs preparing some "Kebabs" and decided to taste the same. "PHO" is the common food in Hanoi and everything is served with "Pho" including Kebabs which consisted of a mixture of pork and beef.After fueling my stomache  began my marathon walk to "West Lake" which seemed endless but looked reasonably close according to the map.Luckily i met a young girl who did understand English and hence guided me on the right track.
"Tran Quoc" Pagoda on West Lake.
                                                                                          "Ho Tay  or West Lake"  is the largest lake in Hanoi which is also called a city of lakes as numerous small natural lakes dot the city.Finally at approx 1030 hrs i reached  "Quan Thanh Temple" situated on the bifurcation of "Truc Bach lake" and "West lake".From "Quan Thanh temple decided to  walk across "Truc Bach Lake" and visit the poshest locality in Hanoi, most famous being the  "Sheraton Hotel" of Hanoi.After crossing "Truc Bach Lake" the locality spelt aristocracy, the living quarter of the wealthy elite of Hanoi. Came across a young man with a pet falcon on his arm, the last and first time i saw this was  on "National Geographic" television and here in Hanoi seeing the same in person..Most of the shops and houses in this locality had "Bird cages" hanging from the trees, bulbuls being the favourite pet bird of Hanoians.  
A Falcon as a pet in the plush "West Lake" locality of Hanoi.
                                                                                                                             .Further ahead i came across a ultra luxury bungalow with a young couple sitting just outside their bungalow .Beautiful bird cages hung around the bungalow and two beautifully bred poodles greeted me with their yelps of curiosity.Did someone say that dog meat was a favourite delicacy of Hanoians? These beautiful poodlers definitely lived in the lap of luxury , very good breed of poodles. A  classic car was parked in their garage.During employment in the "Merchant Navy"  had visited Romania,  U.S.S.R and East Germany in the 1980's and hence  do have a idea of "Communist Living" in the hey days of "World Communism" and "Cold War Politics". .All residential houses  & apartments looked similar in the  "Communist Bloc Country's" of  Romania ,Old Soviet union and East Germany, drab and colourless. .Post Perestoika and collapse of Communism in the West  its Vietnam that is still officially the World's only Communist country. Hence i was surprised at the obvious capitalism in social living of Vietnamese.Vietnam also has its very wealthy and very poor class of citizens as do all cities of the World.It was a long walk to the "Sheraton Hotel" but worth the effort as i got a idea and view of "Communist Socialism" in Vietnam, nothing different from Capitalism.The hotel was excellent , the entrance designed in pagoda fashion and the interior  normal to any of the World's 5-star hotels.
"Intercontinental Sheraton" of Hanoi.
                                                                                  The rental for a day was 150 U.S dollars minimum and advance booking was required to confirm accommodation.I next began my journey back to Hoan Kiem lake area and on inquiries and self-taught navigational map logic made my way towards a bus stop. I was adviced to catch a taxi but the rental of  70,000 dongs was an incentive for commuter saving and decided  to use my solo tour experience to find my way back to the hostel.A young man at the bus-stop told me that Nos 31 bus did go to Hoan Kiem area and hence i waited for the same. The bus did finally arrive and hence on a ticket of 5000 dongs i reached my destination.
Refreshed myself at the hostel ,packed my luggage and made my way out of the hostel. My next agenda was visiting "Long Bien Bridge" and "Hoa Lo" prison.Despite being colonized by the French for over a century it was military superpower U.S.A that put Vietnam on the World map due to the "Vietnam War" .The only war that America has officially lost in its history.It was the "VIETNAM WAR" called the "AMERICAN WAR" by Vietnamese that shaped American politics of the future including the 21st century.The modern English
At "LONG BIEN BRIDGE" with Motodriver  Mr Viet.

Hired a "Motorcycle taxi"  and Mr Viet the taxi rider agreed to take  me on a tour of "Long Bien Bridge" and Hoa Lo prison on a charge of 50,000 dongs. "LongBien Bridge" was opened in 1903, built by the French, one of the longest bridges in Asia at that time in history.It was severely bombarded during the "Vietnam War" due to its strategic location and importance to North Vietnmam. It resembled a bit of the infamous Second World war "Kanchanburi bridge" in Thailand .A railway track ran  through it besides having a railway station on one end .After crossing and returning from the bridge we headed towards "Hoa Lo" prison.The entry fee charges to this museum prison was 20,000 Dongs(1 U.S $ approx). Motorcycle taxi rider Mr Viet waited outside while i toured the ."Prison museum". 
"Hoa Lo Prison museum" in Hanoi.
                                                                                    The American "P.O.W'S" sarcastically named this prison the "Hanoi Hilton".Most of the exhibits was on the Vietnamese struggle for Independence from the French with torture chambers and methods of execution depicted as also some famous escapes from this high security prison.There were some escapes through the toilet drainage systems and the toilets kept as exhibits.Prisoners were chained by their legs in small cells.On the "AMERICAN WAR(VIETNAM WAR)" there were exhibits on the bombings of Hanoi by American bombers and the American airmen taken as "P.O.W'S".Senator John.McCain ,a former "P.O.W"  is the most famous exhibit in Hoa Lo prison. A television documentary continuously plays details of the bombings of Hanoi and the "American War".Exhibits of possessions of captured American prisoners and photographs were on display.
After completion of the prison tour made my way back to Hoan Kiem  and decided to explore a little of the "OLD Quarter" streets. Decided to walk upto "Dong Xuan Market", the largest market in Hanoi.
Christmas shopping on "Hangma Street" of Hanoi.
           On the way to the market  came across "Hang Ma" street whose shops were filled with Christmas  decorations and red lamps, the Chinese decorations for festivals.Vietnam has the second highest number of Catholics in Asia after the Philippines and a visit to "Hang Ma " street in the Old Quarter locality confirmed the same.A little walk ahead from "Hang Ma" street was the famous "Dong Xuan Market", a typical Asian market with a variety of consumer goods .The market did not fascinate me as Mumbai had numerous markets of this capacity.Made my way back to the hostel and got busy on the internet awaiting my pick-up shuttle bus.At approx 1800 hrs the bus  conductor  arrived at our hostel and i carted my luggage onto a shuttle mini van.Other tourists were collected  en-route to the main bus depot and we all congregated  at the main office of "CAMEL BUS TOURS".
Luxury "Camel A/C sleeper bus" :-"Hanoi to Hue".
                                                                                             Spotted one of the largest  breed of German shepherd mix i have seen, a unique breed.A young group of French tourists were also in the bus group and picked up a conversation with them.For  First World Country citizens, Vietnam is a cheap country for touring and hence some young tourists spend months touring Asia on a backpackers budget, impossible by most  Asian country' citizens unless belonging to the wealthy class with a lot of time for leisure..The "Camel Bus" was brand new,centrally air-conditioned and better than most airline planes in comfort. Seems to have been its maiden voyage and a total "Luxury SLEEPER BUS", the first time i  travelled on a "SLEEPER BUS". The bus had three rows  of  double-deck "Sleeper reclining cushion seats".In Hanoi i had the privilege to experience the best quality of bus travel in the World .As a World traveller  have travelled on public  buses in U.S.S.R, London,Japan and U.S.A to name just a few "First World Country's" and hence consider Vietnam public transport  among the best..The journey was pleasant and  did get some sleep.
Emperor Khai Dinh's life-size statue on his tomb in Thien Dinh Palace in Hue.

WEDNESDAY(4-12-2013) HUE :- Woke up to a cloudy morning hoping that rainfall in Hue wouldn't jeopardize my tight budget tour schedule. The countryside scenery reminded me of my ancestral villages of Mangalore in India, acres of wet paddy fields and flowing rivers and bridges.At approx 0745 hrs we  reached Dong Ha and stopped  at "Dong Que" restaurant for breakfast. The proprietor of "Dong Que" restaurant conducted various tours to the historic battle field of the "American War(Vietnam War)" and he explained me the significance of various sites little realizing that i could teach him a little of the "American War" as a student of history and a big American movie fan !After  a "Vietnamese omlette/Viet coffee(40,000 dongs)" breakfast  at this restaurant  felt fresh, Vietnamese coffee being something unique, absolutely strong. The bus then made its final journey to Hue arriving at the last stop at approx 0845 hrs.Hue became Vietnam's first cultural heritage site in 1993  recognized by the "U.N.E.S.C.O,Luck favoured me as the bus had stopped at "Hoang Ngoc hotel" where the receptionist arranged for a immediate "Full-Day Hue Package Tour" of Hue Imperial city.Hue was Vietnam's feudal capital under the Nguyen Kings between 1802 to 1945.This ancient city has a Citadel akin to the "Forbidden city in Peking" as well as Royal  Emperor's tombs, pagoda's  and temples.In 1993 Hue became the first city in Vietnam to be recognized as a World cultural heritage site by UNESCO.Tourists visit Hue to get a peep into Vietnam's feudal history, much before the French Independence movement and the Vietnam war(American War).I quickly checked my luggage into a nice palatial single a/c room/attached bathe, a palace compared to my dormitory accommodation in Hanoi.The receptionist arranged for a motorcycle taxi to take me to the "Hue Full Day Package" tour group as the tour had resumed , myself being late.It was a nice 3 Kms mobike ride to "Tu Doc's Tomb" where i finally met the entire package group of 12 tourists including guide Mr Tom.There are a total of eight tombs in the "Royal Complex" of Nguyen kings tombs in Hue, the most famous being the tombs of  Emperor Tu Duc,Emperor Minh Mang  and Emperor  Khai Dinh. All tombs are unique in design reflecting the architectural and design style of the Emperors for whom they were built.The group had already completed one site of the tour, a visit to the "Incense and hat village" which i missed. .At approx 1045 hrs we finished touring "Tu Doc's" tomb and next drove to "Emperor Min Mang's Tomb". The cloudy skies now gave way to a continuous mild drizzle, my  worst fear coming true.I didn't have a raincoat or umbrella but luckily it was still just a drizzle and not a downpour.From "Min Mang's Tomb" we next visited "Emperor Khai Din's tomb"which had photographs of the emperor's life in the Thien Dinh palace which was also his tomb.This was the period when the Nguyen Kings were administered by the French, just puppet rulers of their empire.Later  went for lunch at "Stop & Go" restaurant and picked up a conversation with a Canadian live-in couple, the norm in most First World Country's.Lunch was Vietnamese buffet and as usual i topped it up with a local pint of beer . The rain was now a continuous drizzle and all the tourists had departed as most were on a "Half-Day Tour".A Vietnamese  family of three members and myself were the only tourists left in the smallest of small groups on a rainy day.
A "Self-Photo" in the huge mirror in "Emperor TU Duc" tomb palace .The Concubine's residence is reflected..

   "CITADEL", the capital of the empire of the Nguyen Kings that once ruled Vietnam and called the "Purple forbidden city".The "American War(Vietnam War)" destroyed most of the Citadel complex and hence it was just literature and a few re-constructed sites that were on view for tourists. Visited "Thai Hoa Palace" inside the Citadel which was originally constructed in 1805 and later renovated in 1833 and 1933, the only edifice unaffected by the "American War(Vietnam War) that destroyed most of the Citadel buildings., The heavy drizzle made sightseeing difficult and luckily guide Mr Tom shared his umbrella with me.At approx 1415 hrs we finished the tour of the "Citadel" with Mr Tom wanting to wind up the tour  as early as possible, typical of most "Package tour sojourns", especially in bad times or unfavourable climatic conditions.Our last stop was  at the most famous and well preserved pagoda in Vietnam.The tour of the "Perfume river" by boat was cancelled as the four  of us decided that enough was enough and were  lucky to have viewed the most important sights.
"Thien Mu" pagoda Tower .

"CITADEL" on a rainy Wednesday.
                                                                Our last sightseeing spot was the "Thien Mu Pagoda"  a majestic pagoda situated next to the Perfume river.This pagoda was founded in 1602 by Lord Nguyen Hoang.The tall tower was built in 1844 by  King Thieu Tri and is considered a symbol of the city of Hue. It is built on the  Ha Khe hill overlooking the "Perfume River" and approximately 7 Kms by road from Hue city .Due to the continuous drizzle it was a hasty tour of the Pagoda complex.Finally at approx 1500hrs the packaged tour came to an end and i was dropped at the hotel.
I was dropped at my hotel and after changing  made my way out of the hotel with a ladies plastic raincoat as rain cover, courtesy of the hotel care-takers.This hotel was situated in a posh locality of the city and walking down the road i sighted the "Saigon Morin Hotel", surprised that the name Saigon still existed in 2013!This hotel was built in 1901 situated next to the Perfume river  with the Truongtein bridge connecting it to the other side of Hue city.Christmas and New Year  decorations were in full swing. Entered the hotel hoping that the staff would mistake me for a "Transvestite" due to my ladies raincoat and not a tramp as i was very shabbily dressed and would never try the same in my home city of Mumbai ! Entered the plush  hotel and "Mr Saigon not Miss Saigon" got good treatment ,the receptionist answering my queries.From the hotel i strolled around the area, ultra plush ,a replica of Paris with broad clean roads.As a Anglophile, Vietnam was one of the rare city's besides the communist block of country's prior to "Perestoika" that had a total absence of the  English language. A bizarre handicap  in solo travel without a guide which made me use all the experience  of my decades of solo tours acquired through sea travel as well as private tours.
"Truong Dinh Cafe", a plush  "Elite Youngsters Cafe" in Hue.
. "Jacuzzi style bathe", ultra hot water being common in Vietnam hotels. Changed into a "Indian Kurta" from my "Miss Saigon" outfit and made my way out of the hotel in a mild drizzle.The locality near my hotel had a large number of food shops and a plush restaurant the "Truong Dinh cafe" that was filled with young boys and girls. I entered this restaurant and was surprised at the fashion sense and habits of young Vietnamese boys and girls, totally Westernized,the children of economically  well-off parents.Cards seemed to be a popular pass-time with these kids. Apologize for calling them "Kids" because if i had children they would have been older than the entire bunch in the restaurant!This restaurant served only "Childrens Drinks" and i relaxed with a "Strawberry Milkshake".The Kids must have rarely seen a "Kurta"  as Indian tourists were rare  and hence  i was a curiosity akin to a Arab with a  Kanzu outfit.From the restaurant strolled onto the main street and came across the Central  Post office of Hue, as good as the "Saigon Morin Hotel" !  
Plush "Hue Central Post Office" akin to a 5-star hotel lobby.
                                                                                                                                         In an era where "Post Offices" all over the World are gradually becoming extinct i was surprised at seeing the plushest and poshest post office of a life-time. Entered the post-office and purchased two stamps for my stamp collection although yet to purchase the stamps of Indian cricket god Sachin.Tendulkar. Tasted one of the rare specialties at a street side hawker which i name the "Hue Idli" as the local Vietnamese name is a mystery to me. A steamed boiled rice puff  stuffed with meat and vegetables, just too deliscious. On my way back to the hotel purchased a beer and digested it with the now routine  "Bun Bo Hue(Pho/noodle/beef meat)" at a street eatery .Eating with chopsticks had become passe and  barring the language i am proud to say that i blend with the locals.
Dinner of "Bun Bo Hue" with chopsticks in Hue.
In my hotel switched on the telivision and realized that "English Language" was not extinct in Vietnam as prominent international channels like "CN.N" ,"HBO Movies" & "Star Movies" were available on Cable , the rest being local Vietnamese programmes.The most popular sport was football with no sign of cricket , the popular pass-time sport being badminton akin to  "Gully cricket" in Mumbai.
Had a good nights sleep although as usual was awake by 0500 hrs.

A "CYCLING TOUR" of Ancient Hoi An  Heritage City."Japanese Covered Bridge" in Background.

Thursday(5-12-2013) HOI AN. :- After a quick bathe and toilet made my way out of the hotel. Had a "Cold Ice  Coffee" ,Vietnamese style, a chunk of ice immersed in coffee, just a great taste.After coffee had the typical "Vietnamese breakfast" of "Pho" at a restaurant  using chopsticks , a skill  not hard to learn. After breakfast made my way back to "Hoang Ngoc Hotel" and whiled away my time watching telivision.The "Camel Bus" finally arrived at approx 0845 hrs and the three French backpackers and myself made our way into the bus.
Scenic Lang Ko fishing village.

A Peep Inside the "HAI VAN TUNNEL".
It was a bright day with no rain, the weather Gods being kind to my tour itinerary. There was a long traffic jam  upto the mountains, a very dangerous route through winding roads,The view of the sea was magnificient, calm and clean, At approx 1040 hrs we had a short stop at Lang Ko beach and thanks to a Vietnameese co-passenger, a tailor by profession that we foreigners got to know some of the historic "American War(Vietnam War)" battle zones. The cult Vietnam war film  "Apocalypse Now " was filmed at "China Beach" in Danang  and all the beaches in the vicinity including Lang Co witnessed fierce American/Vietnamese warfare.Lang Co beach  is a fishing village and some hawkers  near the restaurant  were selling dry squid to tourists.After a short rest we  made our onward journey passing through the longest tunnel in South -East Asia the "Hai Van Tunnel" which is 6.28 Km on Highway No  1.This tunnel shortens the route between Hue and Da Nang by 20 Kms over the former traditional road  route.

Finally at approximately 1200 hrs  reaching the historic "American War" city of Da Nang. Seems the entire city has been rebuilt after the "Vietnam War" as it resembles a plush , planned "First World City" with broad roads and fancy buildings.A few tourists alighted the bus at Danang and it was a beautiful journey to Hoi An. The entire "China Beach" area is lined  with hotel buildings under construction as also a gambling casino, aftereffects of "Apocalypse Now" with Americans being the prime future  tourists.We finally reached Hoi An at approximately 1300 hrs and as usual i booked a room at the hotel where the bus terminated.                                                                                                            "Thien Trung Hotel" was plush and had a 10 meter swimming pool .Checked into room No 118 , the swimming pool just outside my room,  classic, akin to a 5-star hotel. Made bookings for the next  day tour of "Marble Mountain" and also my onward overnight bus marathon  journey to Mui Ne beach resort.Hired a cycle for 1 dollar and with a small guide map cycled my way towards  Hoi An ,the "Heritage city".
A morning swim at  the  "Thien Trung Hotel" 

Classic Heritage city of Hoi An.
                                                                                                  Vietnam has "Left Hand Driving" and hence it took me some mistakes to get adjusted to my new format of cycling.The Mopeds don't drive fast as in Mumbai and hence the roads are safer although confusing to a "Right hand driver". There was a entrance fee of 1,20,00 Dongs(Approx 6 U.S $'s) to the ancient heritage city with a brochure and tickets issued for visiting the cultural and tourist sites within the precinct.With a single ticket a tourist gets access to visit 5 out of the 22 sightseeing places inside the historic heritage city and the ticked was valid for 24 hours. Hoi An  brought back memories of Melaka(Malacca) , "Little India(Penang)"   and "Galle City" in Sri Lanka .A  city where time has stood still while the surroundings evolved.In the 16th and 17 th Century Hoi An was a International trading centre in South Vietnam and the heritage Old city is testimony to the same.Words can't describe the beauty of Hoi An ancient city as it has to be visited to be experienced.Cycled continuously around the Heritage port city akin to a cycle race while occasionally alighting my cycle to visit the various museums , Old houses,Communal houses and the main symbol of ancient  Hoi An, "The Japanese bridge".
Hoi An is famous for its numerous  "TAILORING SHOPS".
                                                                                                                                      Hoi An is World famous among tourists for its tailored clothing  and hence a row of clothing shops were the main attraction.Every shop was decorated with Chinese lanterns and the Christmas festive season was in vogue.This ancient heritage city has a total tourist flavour, meant and preserved for tourism. Rows of cages with Bulbul birds  were the pets on display in most shops while one shop had a few chihuahua dogs, the most popular pet breed in Vietnam.Among the Old houses had visited the the "Old house of Phung Hung" situated near the Japanese bridge , a 200 year old residence with the ancestors  of the owners living in the house. Also visited the communal houses of "Cam Pho " and "Minh Huong" getting an insight into Vietnamese culture.While cycling around the Old heritage city precincts  tasted some street hawker delicacies which included "banana fries","fried kebab", "banana fritters" and  quenching my thirst with draft beer, cheap and non-intoxicating.Visited the "Traditional Craft museum" where i got to understand the manufacture of silk from silk-worms.A few ladies pestered me for massages and tailoring to which i politely refused.Visited some of the art galleries  and nude art was in vogue.Visited some jewellery shops and kept in touch with luxury goods As usual visited the fish market and viewed some of the best crabs .The fish market was situated on the wharf of the "Hoai river", the main river that flows through Hoi An heritage city.  From the fish market kept on cycling in circles round the tourist city and entered the heritage ancient"Tan Ky" house.
Heritage  house in Hoi An.
                                                                                                                        A  house which depicted the living conditions and trading practices of the wealthy merchants.Thanks to the cycle i could visit the hidden non-tourist areas of the fishing community and was amazed at the simplicity and neatness of these fisher folk of Hoi An. In one house  spotted "Aseel fowls" and i presume that "Cock-Fighting" is a popular village sport.Explored nooks and corners of the heritage  city and the weather played good sport, just pleasant and fantastic. About a fortnight ago in November  there was heavy flooding in Hoi An with tourists being evacuated for safety. As night settled the bright Chinese lanterns and decorations was something un-natural a total tourist paradise.Cycled my way back to the hotel with a little help from my map and inquiries. Dinner was the typical Vietnamese "Pho" with "Tiger beer". Arrived at my hotel at around 1930 hrs and got myself busy on the hotel computer,
Summit of "MARBLE MOUNTAIN" with "China Sea" in the background.

Friday(6-12-2013).Visit to "Marble Mountain" and departure Hoi An :-  A backpackers life is unpredictable which is the thrill that makes people take up unknown destinations,the ultimate in exploration. From a "Dormitory hostel" i was now sleeping in self-contained hotel rooms.Had a decent nights sleep  and later on turning on the television heard the news of Dr Nelson.Mandela's demise in South Africa.At approx 0530 hrs had a swim in the pool just outside my room, the ultimate hotel luxury.The pool was clean, the water chill and the experience thrilling. After the swim had a "Jacuzzi style bathe" and dressed up for the morning itinerary, a package tour of "Thy Son(Water Mountain), one of the 5  mountains in the "Ngu Hanh Son (Marble Mountain)"  chain.Had breakfast at the restaurant next to my hotel, the common "Pho" with chopsticks. The tourist van arrived at approx 0830 hrs and  after collecting me  drove along  collecting other tourists from different hotels.
A artist worker grinding a marble statue
                                                                     It was a long drive of approx 10 kms  on a beautiful paved road to the base of "Thy Son(Water Mountain)" situated about 11 kms south  of  Da Nang. There were a few large shops selling marble handicrafts and sculptors and the sales lady gave me a tour of the shop and the workers at work. Resembled a typical workshop factory of cutting and chipping marble instead of metal .The marble from "Marble Mountains" was used to decorate  the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Extraction of marble from these mountains is now prohibited. We were a total of  9 tourists, myself the only Asian  besides  our guide Mr Lee .I thought i had retired from "Trekking" and was aghast when Mr Lee told us to climb the steps to the top of "Thuy Son (Water Mountain). There are two routes by steps for tourists to sight-see the various caves ,temples and viewpoints of Thy Son(Water Mountain)".We were ascending the mountain from the Western side which consisted of 156 steps and would be descending from the Eastern side which consisted of  108 steps ! A Lift is available for tourists and pilgrims but the same didn't apply to our group as we were on a trek tour of this small mountain.  "Thuy Son(Water Mountain)"  is the largest among the 5 mountains and covers a area of 15 hectares with 3 rock peaks.No 05 is a auspicious number in Oriental culture. Ngu Hanh Son(Marble Mountain)"  actually consists  of  five mountains in the nearby  Ngu Hanh Son district .Their Vietnamese names are as follows, Kim Son(Mount of Metal),Moc Son( Mount of wood),Thuy Son(Mount of Water),Hoa son(Mount of fire) and Tho Son(Mount of Earth).Water Mountain (Thy Son ) which is on every tourist itinerary is the only mountain having marble deposits besides having played a historic role in the "American War(Vietnam War).After climbing a flight of stairs  we reached the "Gate of Heaven" , a small opening in the passage to the peak of marble mountain.Mr Lee was an excellent guide and explained all the significance of Chinese and Vietnamese culture.Understood the significance of the two statues  at the entrance of every Chinese temple.One statue denoted "Good" while the other statue denoted "Evil".He also explained the significance of the stupa's on the mountain which was homage to the burial site of important Buddhist monks.
Beginning of the steep trek to "MARBLE MOUNTAIN".
                                                                                                 Entry to the marble steps  to access the peak was a test of skill and stamina as the final climb was through a narrow hole reminding me of the "Bat Caves" of Pokhara(Nepal),deceptively easy to look but a nightmare to pass through.We all made it to the peak .The view from the peak was astounding, the highest mountain in the area. "China Beach(Marble Mountain beach)"  and entire Da Nang was visible as also the surrounding  mountains.From here we later made our way to Huen Khong  cave  which was used as a hide-out by the "VietCong" during the "American War(Vietnam War)".At the entrance to the cave was a large marble statue of "Lady Buddha".
Marble statue of "Lady Buddha" in  Huyen Khong Cave.
                                                                                                The Vietcong had  built Buddhist temples inside the cave including a carving of Buddha.After visiting the cave we made our way out of the mountain through a different exit route.Among my co-tourists were Australians, Swiss and a Czechoslovakian nationals.Two of the tourists were doctors , Mr Ben .Smith a psychiatrist from Australia travelling with his wife and Mr Martin a radiologist  from Czechoslovakia . Its a "Small World" and as a Indian  Dr Ben.Smith  gave me some insights into the infamous "Dr Jayant. Patel. Case" that shook the medical fraternity  and Indian community of Australia as he had some "Insider Information" being a doctor and  having  a co-doctor who worked under Dr Jayant.Patel..Travel is the best education as you interact with different people of different nationalities which broadens your opinions and horizon. I finally reached my hotel at approx 1130 hrs and after a hot "Jacuzzi bathe" checked out of the hotel, keeping my luggage in the hotel lobby.
Locally  brewed  "Draught beer" stored in metal casks  is very cheap and my normal thirst drink supplementing water !
Vintage Hoi An City.
                                                                                                                                      After a draught beer at a cafe had lunch at the next cafe , a local Hoi An specialty called  "Cao Lau". After lunch roamed aimlessly visiting various shops and also window-shopping. Food delicacies is a specialty of Hoi An and i should say that the puffed bread preparations of  coconut  or bananas is something unique.The best method of sightseeing Hoi An is by moped if one is confident since hire rates are cheap at just 6 $'s /24 hrs and cycles at 1 $/ 12 hrs. Most tourists use cycles for sightseeing as the traffic is less compared to Vietnam's  mega city's Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh(Saigon). Had  coffee at a classic open-air restaurant in the heart of the  city just before entrance to the "Historic heritage city".The Vietnamese script is in Latin  and hence is pronounced and also means different when read in English language".Cat" and "Son" are very common words in Vietnamese but have a different meaning compared to the English  meaning. Examples are "Catba Island" and "My Son"  archaeological site. Hoi An is a small town with no skyscraper buildings, just Bungalow type houses of two storeys or less.In two days i toured entire Hoi An city and the local shopkeepers  might be mistaking me as a new entrant to the city!
"Bulbuls" are the most popular aviary birds
All tourists waiting for the bus at "Minh Phue" agency.
                                                                                                                            Visited a "Pet Store" having bulbuls and aquarium fish for sale but as usual  language was a hurdle and hence couldn't discuss  about the breeding of aviary birds with the owner.Checked the US $ exchange rate at the "Exim Bank" and realized i was taken for a nice ride with local shops  equating  20 dongs /dollar while the official bank rate was 21.2 Dongs/ U.S.Dollar.Hotels charge a higher amount for "Package Tours" compared to direct bookings with a "Tour Operator". Also,  internal  air travel  is comparitively cheap in Vietnam and i advice tourists to travel by air if possible, unless local short sight-seeing trips are a priority as in my case.Anyhow, petty short charging is a minor loss in the long game of "Solo Touring".My next itinerary was  Mui Ne , a beach side resort town famous for "Kite-Flying", a sport  new to me.Whiled away my time at the hotel internet  until a mobike taxi came to pick me up for boarding the bus to Mui Ne.  
                                                                                                         It was a short ride to "Minh Phue travel" where the other travellers gradually arrived .Had dinner at the travel shop which also doubled as a cafe for travellers boarding buses.At approx 1830 hrs our plush "Sleeper bus" arrived and it was house-full with tourists, myself getting the top berth akin to a train.This sleeper bus was a bit cramped compared to my first sleeper bus from Hanoi and as usual had partial sleep.
Classic "FISHING VILLAGE" of Mui Ne.

Saturday(7-12-2013( Arrival Mui Ne) :- At approx 0600 hrs our bus arrived At Nha Trang, a beautiful city with a long sea beach.At Nha Trang all the passengers alighted and  "Mui Ne" passengers    had to board another bus scheduled to arrive at 0730 hrs.The bus terminus was at the "La Parisenne Cafe" and i had a breakfast consisting of  classic Paris bread with butter/cheese and Vietnam coffee. After breakfast  headed towards the beach front to do a solo tour of Nha Trang beachfront for which the city acquired fame and tourists.
On the World famous  "Nha Trang Beach".
                                                                                                                                                    The Miss World 2008 contest was held at Nha Trang and a visit to the beautiful beach made me understand the reasons for Nha Trang being the glamour city of Vietnam. The beach was absolutely clean and stretched for a few kilometers with skyscraper hotels facing it, most prominent being the Sheraton hotel.The beach was crowded with early morning walkers and swimmers with a group playing badminton in a corner of the beach.After a brief photographic session for a "Been here seen that" memory bank made my way quickly back to "La Parisienne Cafe".A mini van came and picked up seven of us  for transportation to the main sleeper bus.At approx 0830 hrs we boarded our sleeper bus and headed towards Mui Ne.After a nights sleep in a uncomfortable position this bus had good leg-space and my journey was comfortable. This was my first journey through  Vietnam countryside and  it was a replica of Mangalore and South Indian  villages with rice fields, mango trees, banana  plantations and  sugarcane plantations  being a part of the topography.Observed a few churches along the way.The weather was bright and sunny and large mountains formed the boundary of the cultivated land until we reached the coastline towards Mui Ne.At approx 1145 hrs we had a short stop at a plush restaurant which had the largest crib i have ever seen outside a church premises.The Christmas festive atmosphere was in the air and South Vietnam has a large catholic population.After the brief halt we made our onward journey finally reaching Mui Ne at approximately 1400 hrs. I quickly booked my onward ticket to Ho Chi Minh at the same tourist center where the bus terminated and approached a motorcycle taxi for a tour of the town.  Motorcycle taxi driver Mr Chu agreed to give me a guided tour of the entire city for a fee of 2,00,000 dongs.Mui Ne has a 15 Kms long stretch of restaurants and hotels on Nguyen Dinh Chieu street.The  "Solar Eclipse" of October 24 1995 transformed Mui Ne in a tourist paradise as people flocked to this small fishing village to observe the eclipse.
Guided tour of "MUI NE"  by Motodriver Mr Chu.

Our first stop was the "Fairy Stream" which was a walk along a narrow gauge of flowing water.It resembles the Grand Canyon in America and there is a small waterfall at the end of the stream.I did not walk till the end but  stopped at  the end of the gauge trail where Ostrich riding was available for tourists on the elevated ground..For the first time in my life  sat on a Ostrich paying a princely fee of 1,00,000 dongs and found the ride less strenuous than on a horse which can give you a sore backside if not ridden properly.I was only afraid of the Ostrich pecking me and never had fear of falling off the ostrich. Our next stop was at  the "Fishing Village" where i got to view the "Basket boats" a peculiar designed boat meant for shallow water fishing.From the fishing village it was a long drive of approx 7 Kms to the "White Sand dunes" and on the way stopped to observe the fascinating sport of "Kite Surfing".The "Kite Surfing" season is usually from November to March when there are strong winds.  There are numerous "Kite Surfing" schools in Mui Ne and in peak season there are approx 300 kite surfers on the beach which can be dangerous for novices , creating beach traffic problems .
                                              A few western tourists were busy setting up their kites and i got a close-up view of this sport.It is actually a large kite whose body rims are filled with compressed air for stiffness instead of sticks as used  in normal kites. The kite is then  connected to controllable strings and hoisted in the air with the controller later skiing in water as the kite drifts in the wind. This sport was a first in my life .After a brief stop at the "Kite Surfing" zone we made our way to the "White sand dunes". Entrance fee was 10,000 dongs as there was also a small park with other entertainment including fishing in a pond.The White sand dunes of Mui Ne are  a marvel of nature in Vietnam or the World.
"WHITE SAND DUNES" in Mui Ne. Sand Tractors in use!
                                                                                                                          Imagine desert sand  in a small patch of area akin to a oasis and now realize the reason of the name "Camel Bus service" although there are no camels in Vietnam.A film shooting of the Sahara desert could be done on this tiny patch of sand dunes, a "Ripley's believe it or not"! From here we next visited the "Red Canyon", a miniature model of the Grand Canyon, nothing spectacular just a small gorge cut by flowing water.Our last visit was sunset at the "Yellow Sanddunes" situated on another side of Mui Ne.The sand shone yellow in the setting Sun and hence the name.At approximately 1730 hrs Mr Chu dropped me back at the "Phuong Nam" travel agency, end of a fruitful and engrossing tour.
"SUNSET" on the "Yellow Sand Dunes" of Mui Ne.

Spent the entire evening strolling the street of Mui Ne, a classic sea-side resort that is a favourite with Russian tourists. Most of the restaurants have their sign-boards in Vietnamese and Russian,besides, many shops and hotels are also owned by Russians.
Viewed the most exotic "SEA-FOOD" in Mui Ne, much better than Hong Kong, to be seen to be believed.For the first time in my life  ate "Crocodile Meat" which was served as "Barbequed  meat" , very similar to chicken and no fishy taste. Shells, clams , oysters, lobsters,turtles,squid and live cobra's were on sale.
"CROCODILE MEAT" for sale in Mui Ne Restaurants.

Most of the fish are kept in small water tanks and slaughtered on the customers choice of food.The two cobra,s were kept in a small  cloth bag and even hissed when disturbed. After China its Vietnam that has the most exotic and bizarre food for human consumption.Entire Mui Ne was decorated for the festive Christmas and New Year season but i presume that the tourist season was  dull , a result of the World economic slowdown.There was a string of hotels and night clubs but most were empty.The recent floods  in the region could be a reason for less tourists or the arrival was yet to begin as Christmas and New year were still many days away.As i was walking a young  man approached me and handed a leaflet printed in English and Russian advertising  a live music performance by a Cuban band on Sunday(8-12-2013) at the "Snow Restaurant" on 109 Nguyen Dinh Chieu street.Entry charges were 2,50,000 Dongs(approx 13 U.S $'s) along with  a free Cuba Libre and fingerfood.Very reasonable charges for a live music act. I was leaving the same night  otherwise would have got an idea of "CUBAN MUSIC" and the Russian Night club scene. First time i came across a entire tourist town catering more to the Russian tourists than to normal tourists.As the night got lonelier made my  way towards my tourist bus office and listened to some English music played at a store close to the office. Conversed with the young shop owner, a young man eager to learn English and meet English speaking tourists..
Mui Ne has the most exotic "SEA FOOD" in Vietnam.
                                                                                                                                 Later when the shop closed at 2300 hrs made my way to the travel agency and luckily he allowed me to use his lap-top. Hence time just flew until the "Sleeper bus" arrived at 0045 hrs. This was my third sleeper bus tour and hence a veteran in sleeping arrangements in the cramped fixed position of these buses. Tall people would  find these sleeper buses totally unsleepable as the sleeping area for each passenger is short in length. It is designed for the local Vietnamese traveller of short stature and definitely not for the average American or European tourist..This bus was more comfortable for leg-room and hence had a decent few hours sleep.
Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon):- Ball-room dancing as fitness exercises in garden.Absolute chic & Classic.

Sunday(8-12-2013) Arrival Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and City exploration :- At approx 0545 hrs our bus stopped at the last depot in Ho Chi Minh city and on alighting i was confused about the bearings of "Pham  Ngu Lao " ward , the World famous backpackers residence in Ho Chi Minh city. Taxi and motorcycle drivers pestered me and luckily i spotted a female backpacker from Russia  and hence approached her for directions.To my surprise the road was just a few minutes walk from the bus-stop. Imagine the ride the taxi driver or motorcycle drivers would ave given me had i hired one.On entering  "De Tham street" of "Pham Ngu Lao" ward a elderly lady approached me for accommodation and guided me to  "Vinaday.com Inn", a nice and cosy place filled with Caucasian foreigners,mostly young backpacker tourists.After  the hotel  staff  worker Mr Quing  confirmed my stay and itinerary checked into  into the "Mixed Dormitory" and had a shower.The "Dormitory Accomodation" in hostels are all A/c and hence pleasant , despite many guest residents.Breakfast was continental, "bacon/eggs/bread" , a change from my normal "Vietnamese Pho" routine.The hostels in Vietnam are modeled on European hostels, identical copies and well maintained.After breakfast asked Mr Quing for a guide map and a little help in directions and made my way out of the hostel to begin a solo exploration of Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon. I came across a large garden on my way to  "Ben Thanh Market" and instead of Tai chi found  young and old couples dancing classical western ballroom dances to the taped songs of English and latin singers.
Westernized Saigon. Ball-room dancing  for fitness in garden.
                   This was definitely the elite society of Ho Chi Minh and their ballroom dances and jive moves fascinated me reminding me of Mumbai's very own  " J.J. Rodriguez" dancing school although never ever a classical ball-room dancer myself. A young man  who was an identical copy of Michael.Jackson in physique  with pony-tail with effeminate gestures  was a treat to watch,dancing to the loud music played on "Bose speakers". .He handled the ladies with panache akin to a film choreographer.A young couple also performed better than average, a treat to watch .Girls also danced with girls as did men with men, practicing their skills as well as exercising at the same time.I was lucky to get a "Free Ball-room dance" concert as this group could definitely make money  from paid concerts, especially the pony-tailed ball-room maestro and a few of the young ladies and couples.Made a video of their dance moves and proceeded towards "Ben Thanh Market", the guide map my only companion for directions with a little help from the locals."Ben Thanh market"  built in 1913 was massive, the largest market in Ho Chi Minh city built in French style architecture and a massive  clock tower at its entrance. It reminded me of Mumbai's historic  "Crawford Market" but its meat and fish selling zone was to be seen to be believed.
"BEN THANH MARKET":- The Clothes section.
                                                                                                                        The meat and fish market was clean and akin to Hong Kong there were live specimens of crabs, lobsters, eels and mussels  for sale.After a brief survey of the market  at approx 0930 hrs made my way back to the hostel and changed into formal wear.My solo agenda for the day was sightseeing of the museums and  historical landmarks of Ho Chi Minh city.Made my way  towards  the "Independence Palace(Reunification Palace)" through my guide map and directions from locals. En-route quenched my thirst with a large coconut from a road-side coconut seller. Tender coconuts are kept on ice and served cold akin to a bottled aerated drinks, the first time i saw  tender coconuts served in this fashion.Seems road-side hawking is illegal in Ho Chi Minh and on spotting  a police-van the coconut vendor panicked and fled away after accepting the coconut  money, literally begging me to pay the money quickly .Brought back memories of road side illegal hawkers of my home city of Mumbai. Hence i had to break open the coconut against a wall and relish the fresh kernel of the coconut.Nutritious and refreshing after a long marathon walk. Finally reached  the "Independence Palace(Reunification Palace)", the  residence and seat of power of  the former South Vietnamese Government.Ticket  entry was 30,000 dongs.It was originally built in 1868 and became the luxurious residence of President Diem in 1954.At the entrance to the Palace are two tanks on exhibit , one of  U.S.S.R make and the other of Chinese make. It was  North Vietnamese Tank No 843 that historically crashed into the Palace grounds in 1975 bringing an end to the decades old "American War(Vietnam War).
                                                                                                        I  was lucky to get into a free guided tour of the palace residence organized by the tourism department.Our guide, a young lady named Phuong explained us in detail the importance and significance of various sections of this huge Palace.The underground bunkers reminded me of the "Churchill War room" in London and realized that all wars are fought on similar battle lines, irrespective of the outcome of the final results.From the "Independence Palace(Reunification  Palace)"  building  the view of "Bitexco Building", the tallest building in Vietnam was marvelous, a complete glass paneled skyscraper.After  completion of the tour i next made my way to the "Notre  Dame Cathedral"a long walk from "Reunification  Palace". The Notre Dame cathedral  was built between  1877 and 1883 and was consecrated in 1962.Having personally entered and viewed the original Notre Dame cathedral  in Paris i found the Saigon Notre Dame imposing from the exterior.
"Notre Dame" cathedral
                                                                          Entry to the cathedral was not possible as it was closed and after a few photographs made my way to the "Ho Chi Minh " post office situated adjacent to the cathedral.A magnificent structure designed by the architect of the Eiffel tower Mr Gustave. Eiffel.This is a beautiful French Colonial building and should be on a tourists itinerary although "Post Office's" all over the World are fading into oblivion in the Internet and cellphone era On entering the Post office which resembles a 5-star hotel lobby a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh greets visitors..The Post office also has a souvenir section for tourists and according to me Vietnam has some of the  the World's best maintained Post Offices.Next visited the "Saigon Opera House", a magnificent theatre on lines with Parisian architecture. Inquired about the concert schedules and ticket prices which was on par with "West End" theatre prices of London.London. Theatre attendances is for the economically privileged class of Ho Chi Minh city, definitely very expensive in comparison to the average wages in Vietnam.From the post office inquired directions to "Rex hotel", a historic hotel in the "American War(Vietnam War)".In Vietnam, the Christmas and New Year decorations are on par with Europe, every hotel having a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus. Entered "Rex Hotel" and found it a normal 5-star  hotel barring its history.Next visited "Union Square", the largest shopping mall in Ho Chi Minh and was surprised at the plushness and footfalls of this ulta-posh shopping mall.It had three underground shopping malls, the third being a "Food mall" where i had my lunch.After ages ate a "Ketucky Fried meal" , something different from the traditional Vietnamese "Pho".I had to wait for almost five minutes to receive my meal after placing the order which shows the success of this  fast food chain in Vietnam.After my meal next visited the historic "Hotel Continental Saigon" built in 1886! It was used as a base for "Time" and "Newsweek" correspondents during the "American War(Vietnam War)"and in those years it was called the "Continental Hotel".A Ukrainian television crew was shooting a telivision film inside the hotel and that was exciting.From the "Hotel Continental Saigon" made my way to the "Shereton hotel" and on inquiries was surprised at the cheapest daily charges being  250 U.S $'s per room.After exploration of the plushest hotels in Ho Chi Minh decided to visit the "War Remnants Museum", a very long walk from the plush  hotel area.
"EXTREME SPORTS" on the pavements of Ho Chi Minh city.
                   On my way to the "War Remnants museum" came across a group of young boys practicing stunts on their "B M X Cycles" on the pavements  just opposite the Notre Dame cathedral, the type seen on extreme sports on television. Made a video of the same and i had to rub my eyes to believe that i actually wasn't in Paris but in Ho Chi Minh city, formerly known as Saigon.Walking further ahead came across young  boys and girls gathered in a garden with one of the boys playing the guitar while the other sang English pop music.Ho Chi Minh city was definitely far Westernized than Hanoi and most people did understand and speak English language. After listening to a song  continued on my marathon walk towards the War remnants museum. Entry ticket to the "War Remnants museum" was 15,000 dongs and it was crowded with tourists.On the grounds of the museum complex were models of American tanks, helicopters and artillery that was used in the "American War(Vietnam War)".
                                                                                                                             The "WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM" was opened  on 4/9/1975 just after the end of the "American War(Vietnam War)"  and the unification of South Vietnam with  North Vietnam.This War museum is about the atrocities committed by the American armed forces against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong .It reminded me of the "Holocaust Museum" in Jerusalem although to a lesser level.Most disturbing were images of Vietnamese affected by "Agent Orange" as also the stories of American soldiers affected by handling this dangerous chemical during the war years.As a student of history i was well versed with the common view and history of the Vietnam war  and the museum brought to reality the horrors of war.Akin to the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi  various torture methods used by the French colonizers and later Americans were displayed in the museum.This museum displayed more on the "American War(Vietnam War)" than on the French Independence movement."PHOTOGRAPHS" speak a thousand words in describing events, especially a war.The "Requiem exhibits"  of  black and white photographs of  134 journalists of 11 Nationalities who died during the conflict  of the "Indo-China War" is  poignant."War Remnants Museum" and walked all the way back to my hostel, a days marathon walk.
Statistics of the "VIETNAM WAR(AMERICAN WAR) "
The collection of documentary photos by Japanese  photographers Mr Bunyo.Ishikawa and Mr Nakamura Goro occupy another phase of the photographic exhibition. Finally at approx 1530 hours finished my tour of the
Later in the evening as i walked out of my hostel observed a large crowd in the ground on the opposite side  of  Pham Ngu Lao road and hence entered the huge garden complex ground.The park named "PARK 23-9"  is a normal leisure garden cum playground.A huge local fun fair and entertainment was in progress , the ground packed to capacity.
Fun-Fair & Variety cuisines in "Park 23-9"
                                            There was a unaccountable number of food-stalls selling all types of exotic barbecues including  small rats  and hamsters.At one end of the ground there was a "Kick boxing competition" while on another end of the ground was some local entertainment.Tasted a local recipe which consisted of two   quail eggs  and some minced meat put onto a wafer thin rice sheet akin to papads in India.The same is fried on a barbecue and served hot, excellent but not stomache filling. I later watched the "Kick Boxing(Thai Boxing)" competition in which girls and boys participated, a very vicious sport compared to boxing.As usual was camera active  and later tasted ostrich barbecue for the first time in my life.Excellent.In India they do sell Emu meat but not ostrich meat. Surveyed Pham Ngu Lao locality and was amazed at the night-life , food  vendors and hotels,something different.Checked into my dormitory and as usual had a educating conversation with a co-backpacker tourist Mr Vincent Yeo Koh from Singapore.After spending two nights sleeping in "SLEEPER  LUXURY BUSES" it was a pleasant nights sleep on "Bed Nos 7" on the first floor  of "Vinaday.com hostel".
Firing a "A.K-47" rifle at "Cu Chi Rifle Range".

Monday(9-12-2013) Cu Chi Tunnels Package tour :- Woke up early as usual and after a shower dressed  and made my way out of the hostel door, everyone still asleep at 0600 hrs  in the morning.The weather of Ho Chi Minh is humid  akin to Mumbai although cool as it was winter season. Had a glass of "Vietnamese Coffee" at a roadside cafe and later a pork bread roll for breakfast.Came back to the hostel and got ready for the "Cu Chi Tunnel" package tour.
                                                                              The tourist bus arrived at our hostel at approx 0820 hrs  and three of us, a young British "live-in" couple and myself boarded the "Package tour bus".It was a "House-full" tour and en-route our tour guide, a young Vietnamese lady  named Huont explained us a bit of the historic role of  "Cuchi Tunnels" in the "American war(Vietnam war)".The Cu Chi tunnel network is located in the Cu Chi district about 70 Kms from Ho Chi Minh city by road.The present Cu Chi tunnels are preserved in two areas of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. We visited the "BEN DINH" underground tunnel complex of the "Cu Chi Tunnel" network.It was the Viet Cong's base for the "TET OFFENSIVE" of 1968 against the South Vietnamese army and American forces in South Vietnam.This was the base of the  "Cu Chi District  Party leadership" in the Anti-American resistance known to the World as the "VIETNAM WAR" and to the Vietnamese as the "AMERICAN WAR".This tunnel is over 200 Kms long akin to a cobweb.To me, these tunnels were as unique as the "Pyramids of Giza", a wonder of human ingenuity in the modern era  with minimum tools and mechanization for its  construction. It was a long 2 hours ride through a vast expanse of lush green rice paddy fields once we exited Saigon city. .An excellent A/c bus and my co- tourist sitting next to me was a teacher from Singapore.Refreshed my knowledge on Singapore and was surprised to hear that car ownership was a sheer luxury in Singapore, one of the World's richest Country's.At approx 1020 hrs we reached "Cuchi Tunnels" complex and it was packed with tourists and buses .Admission fees to the "Ben  Dinh  Cuchi tunnels" was 90,000 dongs besides the bus tour charges of 1,10,000 dongs.This is a 200 Km underground tunnel system having boarding, lodging, hospital, meeting and fighting places within the tunnel network.
Guide Huont explaining "Cu Chi" warfare.
                                             Our guide explained us various exhibits inside the complex and akin to the Pyramids of Egypt the engineering marvel of the Cuchi tunnel network is unbelievably true.In the crowd i noticed a young lady speaking with a Indian accent and hence introduced myself to Saloni.Kothari from Delhi.Vietnam has been the only country where i literally  counted the Indian tourists during my "Package Tours" and both were young lady's.We were allowed to enter into a "Cuchi tunnel" trap door and honestly, it was claustrophobic to the average human, let alone tourists on a holiday mood.At the "Gun Firing range" tourists are allowed to fire various war weapons for a fee of approx 1.5 U.S $ /bullet. Myself and a Britisher Mr Aden agreed to share a "A.K.-47" rifle since a minimum of 10 bullets had to be purchased which was too much for my "Been here, seen that, done that" ego trip!
Entering the "Cu Chi Tunnel" trapdoor at "BEN DUOC Tunnel Complex".
                                                                                                       Having been a member of the "Worli shooting club" in Mumbai  and a bird hunter during my youth in the 1970's i was accustomed to handling "Air-guns". Had also seen the best of professional shooters at the "Worli Shooting range" including Hindi actor Nana.Patekar. But, a "A.K-47" was a different ball-game, the weapon responsible for the most human deaths in human history and the most preferred weapon by the army as well as terrorists.The target was a "Tiger" and honestly, i was not a very bad shot , very close to target and also hitting the target in 5 shots.For a first timer with no gun training barring a air-gun this was good target shooting. Now i only hope that the actual tiger is used as a source of "TARGET PRACTICE" and not driven to extinction by human poaching. Collected a few of the expelled empty bullet shells as souvenirs.Its not everyday that a civilian gets to target practice with a "A.K-47 rifle". From the "Rifle Firing Range" we next visited the "Cuchi tunnel" where we were allowed to enter the tunnel and crawl out from another exit approx 20 meters away.As a former "Marine Engineer" i was  accustomed to entering enclosed spaces, a routine job for us during "Ship tank surveys".But, the "Cuchi tunnels" was something different, besides, at age 53 i was no spring Marine engineer although a physical fitness fanatic.!
"BOOBY TRAPS" demonstration.

After completion of the "Cuchi tunnel" crawl we visited various other exhibits including the indigenous "Booby traps" and "underground ventilation system".Seems that the "HAMMOCK" as a popular portable tourist sleeping kit  must have been invented in Vietnam.The Viet Cong fighters of the "Cu Chi Tunnels" used hammocks as beds whenever they came out at night  into the open from their underground tunnels."Malaria" was the most common disease to inhabitants of the Cu Chi tunnels during the war years.Our tour finally came to an end at approx  1230 hrs. We then began our return journey to Saigon finally reaching our hostel at approx 1415 hrs.After refreshing myself made my way into the street next to our hostel and discovered a new recipe, "Sea snails".The first time in my life that i ate sea snails, also confused  in the manner of plucking the flesh from the shell casing. The restaurant lady taught me the method of plucking "Sea-Snail" flesh by means of a common toothpick. The flesh is just scooped from its shell with the toothpick. After a sumptuous lunch of sea snails with rice made my way towards "Ben Thanh Market".On approaching "Ben Thanh" market stopped at a coffee vendor where to my utter astonishment a  Vietnamese "T.V Anchorwoman" interviewed me about Vietnamese coffee. I gave my opinion, the same filmed for some channel, amazing. The fish market was deserted in the afternoon and after some window shopping made my way towards the "Saigon river".The map was my guide and finally after much inquiries did reach the Saigon  river front.In the distant from the promenade was the main harbour with a few cargo ships anchored .A floating dry-dock had a "Supply vessel" on its raised deck.Walked towards "Bach Dang ferry" terminal and was filled with nostalgia of the "Shipping years" sailing the "High seas".  
"River Dinner Cruises " on Saigon river.
                                                                                                                                                     Two junk dragon boats and a palatial tourist ship were at anchorage on the pier, meant for tourist sea rides.The boats were splendidly decorated.Strolled around the locality, a very plush river-facing locality with a few hotels in the vicinity, including the "Majestic hotel" which had a "Gambling casino".Vietnam's tallest building "Bitexco Financial tower" was also just walking distance from the Saigon river front and hence visited the same.This building is 262 meters tall with 68 floors.They conduct a "Skydeck tour" to the "49th" floor  providing a 360* birds eye view of the city.Inquired at the receptionist and visited the highest restaurant in Vietnam situated on the "50th Floor" of this building.The "Lift ride" to the "50th Floor" at 7m/Sec lift speed  itself was a memorable swift  journey with air pressure being felt on the ears !
View of  Ho Chi Minh city from "50 Th Floor" of  "Bitexco Financial tower".
                                                                      The view of Ho Chi Minh city from this restaurant was breathtaking, the same captured on my camera.From the restaurant got down the "50 Floors" by lift and next visited the "Majestic hotel" , a historic 5-star hotel having a casino. The interior of the hotel was decorated for the Christmas and New year festival, a plush entrance lobby.. On entering the hotel inquired for directions to the casino ans was guided to the hotel lift.On  alighting from the lift  entered  the small casino where  i was asked for my passport which i was not carrying personally and hence denied "Playing Rights" ! Later made my way to the riverfront and onto Bach Dang wharf. Watched the splendid leisure boats tied to  the wharf, memories of another era  another profession during my life-time.There were two beautiful tourist cruise boats, one boat  having its stem  shaped in the jaws of a shark, a large predator figurehead on water. Sat on a bench  facing the  ships and reminisced my sea-life until darkness .At approximately 1830 hrs made my way back towards my hostel coming across numerous "Foot & body massage" parlours, a craze in Vietnam.On passing through the garden near Ben Thanh market came across a large group of women exercising to music played on a speaker, akin to the "Ball-room dancing" witnessed on Sunday .I didn't photograph them as they were all women .This garden also had exercise machines like "Cycle machine","Push-up Bars" and other gadgets which are freely used by the common Vietnamese.Came  back to my hostel  took some rest from my marathon walk by blogging the days memoirs and later in the night ventured into the hardcore backpackers "adda" of Saigon,"Bui Vein Street" on the next lane from my hostel on  "Pham Ngu Lao ward".
Saigon's famous "Bui Vein Street" coming alive after dark!
                                                                                                                                                     This street at night is like a daylight market-place, teeming with tourists and locals. Sipping beer by the footpath stalls on opposite side of the narrow road  having numerous  eateries and restaurants is a pass-time.There is a variety of different food  to suffice the taste buds.Had the famous local "Saigon beer(12000 dongs)" and relished a local fried rice dish.After a sumptuous dinner came back to the hostel, fatigued but still on the marathon tour.
Canoe Ride on the "MEKONG RIVER".

Tuesday(10-12-2013)  Mekong Delta Package tour :- Woke up early as usual, a light sleeper throughout my adult life, never more than 5 to 6 hours of sleep at a single night.A habit acquired since my employment in the "Merchant Navy" in 1983.After the usual morning personal cleanliness chores strolled out of the hostel and had coffee "Vietnam Style".
"VIETNAM COFFEE", a unique brand taste.
                                                                                      Akin to "British Tea" drinking in India , the Vietnamese method of drinking morning coffee is a art in etiquette and taste, French style.The French colonial rulers of Vietnam have left their architecture and life-style methods on the Vietnamese, most prominent being the numerous street side cafe's, typical of Paris.Vietnam was one Country where i found the total absence of the "English Language" and had  a problem of communicating in English, barring the tourist sites and hostels.Later had breakfast in the hostel mess, a excellent place for discussions and making new acquaintances. Remember, "Solo Travel" means you are never alone! Mr Vincent.Yeo Koh from Singapore resembles a "Rock Star" with shoulder length hair and a slim physique.His passion is travelling and dancing, a "Executive head hunter" by profession.Mr Huck.Neo is a local Vietnamese teacher from Dalat, a young man compared to aging veterans like Mr Vincent and myself. Over breakfast and in the hostel dormitory we did discuss and inter-exchange ideas, opinions and experiences.Ours was  a "Mixed Dormitory" with both , men and women  living together, common European hostel life.Since arriving in Hanoi i have met and interacted with travellers of all Nationalities , experience of a different kind.
Tasting "COBRA/SCORPION" wine.

At approx 0820 hrs  the package tour bus arrived at our hostel and as usual it was gradually filled with tourists.Our guide was Mr Hein.Moon  who as usual spoke to us on a microphone, the normal procedure on "Packaged Tours". My co-companion tourist was a young lady from Switzerland and so  Miss Evelyn.Trachsel and myself got into a conversation  and i was surprised to hear that some Swiss people do eat dogs akin to some Vietnamese.Strangely she was not aware of the fact that in Europe its only the Swiss that eat cats, something i learned from "P.O.C(Pictures of Cats)", a on-line interactive encyclopedia.Diving was her passion and thanks to her i got a practical insight into professional diving although a regular swimmer in Mumbai..Our bus  route was "Highway-1".At approx 1030 hrs we stopped at a restaurant cum shopping  mall and  i happened to spot "Snake Wine" in the liquor section of the shop.The sales lady allowed me to taste the same and hence for the first time in my life did the unthinkable, drank liquor soaked in a bottle with a erect  dead cobra with a scorpion in its mouth.Evelyn also tasted a sip and we both came to a conclusion that it tasted absolutely "RAW" akin to locally brewed illicit liquor!I only hope that the cobra's and other non-poisonous snakes do not become extinct due to the "SNAKE WINE" and "SNAKE MEAT"  fascination, supposed to enhance "MALE POTENCY" .In fact the dead cobra is always kept erect in the liquor bottle symbolizing the male phallus, a sign of immortal potency!This was my first and definitely my last drink of "Snake liquor".Whats the secret of "Playboy" founder Hugh.Hefners potency or the "ROLLING STONES" eternal youth? I am sure it is definitely not "COBRA WINE".Our bus made its onward journey to My Tho with Evelyn alighting  the bus on approaching  My Tho as she was on a overnight  tour of the Mekong Delta.
"Vinh Trang Buddhist Temple"

We finally reached My Tho at approx 1045 hrs.Our first sightseeing was "Vinh Trang Buddhist temple", a large temple complex.Purchased a Vietnamese conical hat at a souvenir shop outside the temple. From here we drove to the jetty pier where the 33 of us tourists of various nationalities boarded a launch for "Toros Island" situated on the Mekong delta.The water of the Mekong river was muddy and there were a few hose boats on the river, normal hut type houses made of sheet metal and  floating on a small flat bamboo logs with tin drums for buoyancy.The banks of the river was rich in vegetation akin to a mangrove forest, a wild form of  coconut trees  forming the periphery of the river bank, a buffer against floods and soil erosion.At approx 1145 hrs we reached "Toros Island" and the farm house resort brought back memories of my  parents ancestral villages of Barkur and Mabukala in Mangalore in  South India, the topography being a identical carbon copy .Narrow canals criss-crossed this small farm-house island with grape fruits and coconut trees being the main local produce.
     Lunch was pathetic,a plate of     "Boiled rice/fried egg/fried cutlet ".I ordered for another plate of "rice/prawns",the prawns absolutely freshand digested my food with a pint of Heineken beer.I was later served a excellent cup of "Cold Coffee", the best recipe provided by the "Package tour organizers".My personal bill was 90,000 dongs, a expensive lunch but thoroughly enjoyable in prime village surroundings.After lunch we again boarded our boat and left "Toros Island" heading towards Ben Tre.
Lunch on Toros Island .
At approx 1315 hrs we arrived at Ben Tre, a typical country village similar to the villages of South India. Ben Tre is the capital of BenTre province, a island on the Mekong Delta and connected by the  Rạch Miễu Bridge to the mainland. This city played a important role in the Vietnam War(American War) being heavily bombarded.After alighting the boat we made our way towards a village house to witness the manufacturing of  "Coconut Candies(Coconut Chikki)" and also the honey bee cottage Industry.Tour guide Mr Hien.Moon explained us various  stages in the manufacturing process and we were given a taste of the freshly prepared "Coconut Candies".I purchased 5 packets at 30,000 dong/packet, also receiving a free packet.Next to the "Candy Factory" was the "Bee hive" and it was also the first time that i saw a live bee hive, surprised that these bees didn't sting.As usual photography was the agenda of the day.
Commercial boats on the Mekong river delta.

From the "Coconut candy/Bee hive cottage Industry" we were given a canoe ride by a oarsman  along the rivers narrow canal, 4 tourists to a canoe.It was beautiful and serene sailing through the narrow canal , far away from the World of congested Ho chi Minh city traffic and noise.If the original "Bridge on the River Kwai" in Kanchenburi(Thailand) could be replicated for a film shooting in Sri Lanka(Ceylon) then i am sure a few villages in South India are identical topography copies of the Mekong Delta river network.Our canoe finally arrived at a village canoe jetty and  we alighted the canoe and made our way towards a local village house situated ahead, awaiting the arrival of all tourists. This village house had chickens and chanced on spotting a beautiful "Vietnamese fighting fowl" kept in a enclosure akin to a zoo exhibit! Read my blog on "Cockfighting in  Manila" to understand this illegal sport, legal only in the Philippines where it is a elite   national hobby akin to horse-racing."Cockfighting" is popular throughout Vietnam, a frenzy  just before the months leading to the "Tet Festival(Lunar New Year)".Ben Tre province in Vietnam has the reputation for breeding the most fierce cocks in Vietnam.In Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) the sport of "COCKFIGHTING" is a very popular illegal sport where thousands of U.S Dollars are gambled  on a day.As a tourist i really got to view the rural rustic Vietnamese lifestyle as this "Fighting Cock" was definitely not a "Tourist Attraction".
Traditional Vietnamese music.
                                                                                          Once the entire group arrived we made our way towards a house to listen to the traditional  music of local village musicians, the last part of the "Mekong Delta single day tour".Spotted a small pig wallowing in a small puddle of muck, the typical village scene.We were a total of approx 33 tourists with a a similar number in other tour groups on the same tour itinerary, literally a conveyor belt system of  tourism.A group of 4 musicians played various different Vietnamese  musical  instruments while a girl sang in Vietnamese.Later two women and a man sang to different tunes and finally all three of them  sang together.We were served a plate of fruit salad and Vietnamese green tea.During the era of Royalty these musicians performed for the  King and Queen of Vietnam .After the end of the music concert we made our way into the bus and at approx 1500 hrs  began our journey back to Ho Chi Minh city.We  drove along the cable stayed  Rạch Miễu Bridge  built by a Australian company  in 2008..We finally reached our hostel at approx 1715 hrs and after dropping my backpack in the dormitory headed into the street.Purchased a packet of jackfruit outside my hostel and decided to relish the same  by strolling along  "Park 23-9".Young men were busy playing badminton, the most popular common sport in Vietnam akin to cricket in India.
"Originals Duplication" painting  in "Bui Vien Street".
                              This park had a small pond and was busy with joggers , strollers and pet owners. First time i observed dogs taken for walks on a leash , a rare sight in Vietnam.Sat down on a bench and relished the jackfruit, absolutely delicious and fresh.A group of men were playing the leg/head version of volleyball and honestly, i was learning new games and new pass times  during my stay in Vietnam.Came back to my hostel and on browsing through the internet read about the demise of  the former Maharajah of Mysore Mr Srikantadatta.Narasimharaaja.Wadiyar. It  brought back memories of my numerous visits to the Mysore Palace and race-course during my holiday stays in Bengaloora(Bangalore).He was young at 60 years of age, a great patron of the arts and horse-racing.
The happening street in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) city is  Bui Vien street just next to my hostel on "Pham Ngu Lao" ward, the backpackers paradise.There are numerous shops that deal in selling canvas paintings of original works of art duplicated by local artists.The paintings are cheap, besides, its purchase helps local artists in earning a living.Who knows, one of them could be the next Picasso in the future. This street comes to life after the sun sets and goes on till ???.Strolled down this street and entered a Italian restaurant for a "Saigon beer", the local brew. Met a Indian origin London based Gujarati couple and picked up a conversation.I remember the Indians i met on my solo Vietnam tour for the simple fact that they are a rarity as tourists in this Country. Imagine the World's second largest population having a lack of footfalls in a friendly country, unbelievably true. Most of the tourists are Americans, Australians, Britishers, Japanese and Singaporeans.Mr Tarun.Patel and his fiancee Miss Krisn.Patel were Britishers living in London and hence a little nostalgia conversation. After my beer i strolled further down the street and had a "Vietnamese dinner(Pho)" along with beer  at Restaurant "Lantern Coffee 142".
Christmas and New Year celebrations in the air.
                                                    After dinner  walked back to my hostel and purchased a  "Chocolate bread" for dessert at the plush "Paris Baguette" shop opposite my hostel. It was another new sweet bread delicacy, a bread with chocolate paste instead of butter, something  that i tasted for the first time in Vietnam.On arrival at the hostel was told to pay for another days stay as the cashier had miscalculated the arrival date.I settled the bill for 4 days instead of the previous 3 days as errors do happen on "Check-in" and "Check-out" schedules in hotels and hostels.End of a hectic and adventurous day in Ho Chi Minh city.
Hippopotamus of Saigon zoo showing me his "JAWS".These jaws can snap a human into half.

Wednesday(11-12-2013) Zoo visit :- Woke up early as usual and after the normal daily routine walked out of the hostel and drank "Iced Cold Coffee" at a street vendor in Bui Vien street.Hostel employee Mr Quing had provided me with the bus detail for boarding the local "35 Nos" bus from Ben Thanh market.Came back to the hostel  refreshed, changed attire and began my walk towards Ben Thanh market bus-stop.Walked through the garden and was surprised to find a group of "Ball-Room Dancers" in the park dancing and waltzing to the music of Christmas carols in English and some other language.I am sure i must have been a familiar face by now and i did recognize a elegant couple from the previous "Ball room Dancing" on Sunday, although "Mr Saigon Michael.Jackson" was missing from today's crowd, a unforgettable character and dancer.Seems this  group uses "Ball-Room Dancing" as a means of exercising akin to Taichi.As it was a week-day i was surprised at speaker music being played in the garden, although not loud to be a public disturbance.Some locals were exercising on the free exercising machines in the park, a great way to start a working day. Ben Thanh market is just a ten minutes brisk walk from my hostel, the focal point for public transport in Saigon.
Plush air-conditioned "35 Nos" public bus.
                                                                                                                 On arrival at the bus-stand asked for directions and waited for the "35 Nos" bus.The mini bus finally arrived and i was shocked on entering the bus, total air-conditioned and on par with London, much superior as ticket price was cheap..The bus fare to "Saigon zoo" was 5000 dongs, real cheap by any standards.The bus was empty and i got seating accommodation, akin to travelling in a chauffeured van ! On reaching Saigon zoo at approx 0830 hrs saw a group of people practicing 'Taichi" at the zoo entrance.Saigon zoo and botanical gardens is the eighth oldest zoo in the World,established in 1864 on approx 12 hectares of land bordering  the Rach Lang river in the North-West of Ho Chi Minh city.The first director of the zoo was Frenchman Mr J.B.Louis.Pierre and at present this zoo houses approx  1000 animals  belonging to  120 different  species..The entry ticket was 8000 Dongs and the first enclosure i visited was the "Giraffe Enclosure". It was early morning and "FEEDING TIME" at the zoo's as in  zoo's all over the World.A pair of giraffes were having breakfast from branches strung at a height in their enclosure.The zoo had a good collection of "White  rhino's", a total of 6 , real large collection for a small zoological park.For the first time in my life saw antelopes with the largest curved horns and couldn't identify them as the description writings were in Vietnamese.Later on reaching Mumbai and consulting  "www.projectnoah.org" managed to identify them as the "Greater Kudu", a antelope species of Africa.
Rare "Fishing Cat".
                                                                                                                                            The zoo also had rare  Arabian orynxes,Orangutans, gibbons, zebra's, ,otters,hippopotamus, tigers,white tiger, lions and elephants.The lions and tigers were kept in pathetic small enclosures. while the elephants were unchained and free roaming in a small enclosure.The zoo had a excellent collection of pythons and i got some lovely photographs of pythons moving as they are normally always seen sleeping in all zoo's.Among the pythons there were also a few "Albino pythons".Bizarrely i got to photograph the jaws of some of the most dangerous animals on planet earth. The hippo, white tiger  and a  Siamese crocodile  opened their mouths when i visited their enclosure, a advertisement to the power of their jaws.The zoo was crowded with nursery class school children and young couples, the kids a great entertainment and hilarious besides the zoo animal exhibits. Hope this generation of kids get to view some of these animals in the natural wild forests of the World, most notably India and Africa, The tiger is extinct in Vietnam although it did exist in forests in the 1960's/70's during the "Vietnam War".As a cat fancier was awed at the sight of the "Fishing Cat" and the "Clouded leopard cat".
"Nursery Children"  in Christmas mood at the zoo.
                              The "Clouded leopard cat" resembles a ordinary cat in size with beautiful "Leopard spots" and as vicious as the wild leopard. The zoo-keeper was cleaning the cats enclosure and i was surprised to see this cat hiss and snarl at him proving that its a total wild animal.Also visited the "Orchid Park" in the zoo and seems "Bonsai" tree planting is popular all over Vietnam.After completing my Saigon zoo visit, i next visited the " Vietnam History Museum" just adjacent to the zoo's entrance/exit gate. The Museum is shaped as a Pagoda , typical Indochinese architecture style.Saigon zoo topography  very much resembled my home turf zoo of "Veermata Jijabai Bhosle Udyan(Victoria Gardens)" in Mumbai although having a better collection of wild-life.Entrance fee to the "History museum" was 15000 Dongs .The museum displayed historic articrafts of Vietnam and Cambodia as also the private collections donated to the museum by wealthy Vietnamese art collectors.
"Water Puppet Show" at History Museum.
                                                                                         The "History Museum" was also crowded with nursery kids and foreigner tourists.Watched the famous "Water puppet show" at the museum, akin to the professional show in Hanoi.Purchased a T-shirt at the souvenir shop inside the museum and finally departed from the premises.Boarded the "35 Nos" bus , the bus being crowded yet comfortable due to air-conditioning. Strangely, i observed most Vietnamese women in the bus and streets covering their face with a mask ,akin to Muslim women wearing a burqa. I presumed it to be a pollution guard but later research explained some beauty factors as the reason for most Vietnamese women covering their face in public.The last stop was Ben Thanh market and on alighting visited this landmark of Saigon.Lunch was at a food-stall inside the market, classic "Grilled scallop with onion oil" and "Bia Siagon beer".Excellent cuisine though not stomach filling and hence had to top up with another plate of "prawn fried rice", the ultimate gluttony feast.In Mumbai one of my prime jobs is personally purchasing fish ,meat and vegetable products from the market and hence i am accustomed to fish products and their quality.Vietnamese fish cuisine is exotic and fresh and hence the flavour different compared to "Ice stored fish" products  in Mumbai and most fish markets across the World.After lunch  did some personal shopping and later walked back to my hostel.Blogged on the computer and later loafed around Bui Vien street. Inquired about hard core cross-country mobike riding  which meant hiring a bike  for approx 170U.S $'s  for riding from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, a one way trip with a maximum duration of 20 days.On arriving in Hanoi the tourist  biker would have to deposit the bike at  the hiring agency's office in Hanoi.
"Shuttle-cock" badminton" called "Da Cau" in Vietnamese,
                                                                            Other bike tourists could use this same bike for a trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, akin to a commercial bus service.Long distance motorbike riding and cycling is a passion among tourists in Vietnam. Discovered two Indian hotels and also a common internet cafe where the charges were 8000 dongs/hour.The internet cafe was crowded doing brisk business.Later walked back to De Tham road and after purchasing a packet of jack-fruit   made my way  into "Park 23-9".Sat down on a bench and watched the crowd indulging  in various games, most common being badminton and "Foot-shuttle(Da Cau)", a game i saw in Hanoi  for the first time in my life.After eating the jackfruit strolled around "Le Lai Road" situated on the other side of "Park 23-9".Entered  the "Angel pool-caroom billiard club" and was greeted with a lounge of 5  pool tables packed to capacity with young players.Photography was not allowed akin to a casino and i presume they gambled on individual "Pool Matches", very common form of gambling.From the "Angel Pool Club" visited the"Verlim" architecture/Interior design shop situated a few shops away  and was surprised at the aristocracy and wealth of the elite in Socialist Vietnam.I had seen fabulous luxury living of local Hanoians  near the West Lake in Hanoi and now in Saigon this shop exhibited the best of elite Paris interior decoration and art.Classic luxury.Vietnam is considered one of the most corrupt country's and honestly, it has two different class of citizens within its socialist structure, the elite wealthy and the common working class as in any Democracy or capitalist system.
Live snake  put into nose & removed from mouth!?
                                               The Rich and poor do exist and live side by side in Vietnam.Staying in hostels has been a refresher course in "Internet and telephone" technology with most backpacker hostel  tourists owning a laptop and networking through wi-fi. The motto of the hard-core backpacker tourist is stay cheap but live with sophisticated 21st century technology.Vietnam is highly advanced in Internet technology where wi-fi and internet facilities are cheap and conveniently available in hostels, hotels and cybercafe's.Came across a co-roommate, a young Dutch lady named Kristal who would be travelling solo for a year !A day before i left conversed with my  Russian hostel mate , a heavily built and tall  Port police inspector  named Mr Alexander from St Petersberg .He  used his mini-laptop for "Skype" conversation with his aged mother in Russia.Thats called sophistication with simple hostel living. Dinner was in the happening street side cafe's of Bui Vein, beer with shrimps/pork and rice. Picked up a conversation with a Britisher Mr Peter and later a Singapore couple with their young daughter joined us on the next table. A engrossing conversation and the couple's young 8 year old daughter surprised us with her intelligence , talkative and brilliant. At approx 2130 hrs made my way back to the hostel and relaxed on the hostel internet."Buin Vein" street is open 24 hrs and hence will be spending a long night just strolling on the street, my last day in Vietnam.A "Live Band" performed at the "Hthi Lounge" right next door to "Vinaday hostel", the music audible in the hostel. Visited the night club  and over a pint of tiger beer listened to some of the latest songs belted by this group of 4 young  singers.
English pop music at the "HTHI Night Club".
                                                                             It was a small nightclub  and compared to "Hard Rock cafe(Mumbai)" and the "Blue Frog(Mumbai)" definitely cheaper, akin to visiting a  A-grade restaurant.Saigon is total American in culture, right from partying to its music tastes and yet i was surprised that the average Vietnamese doesn't speak or understand the English language !At approx 2300 hrs walked out of the night-club after the band had taken its break and strolled for the last time down "Bui Vein" street packed with tourists and locals. Watched a street side performer , a young boy, demonstrating flame eating and razor blade biting,.  His main act was passing a live tree snake from his nostrils and removing it from his mouth, bizarre, something i saw  for the first time in my life.Came back to my hostel at approx midnight and packed off to bed.

Thursday(12-12-2013).Departure Ho Chi Minh and Arrival Siem Reap(Cambodia) :- After a quick morning bath went into the street and had the "VIETNAM COLD COFFEE".Returned to the hostel and got ready for the next marathon solo tour to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The shuttle bus arrived at my hostel at 0710 hrs and after picking all the bus tourists in the vicinity dropped us at the "MEKONG BUS".
On the "MEKONG BUS" to Cambodia.
          The "Mekong Bus" finally departed at approx 0730 hrs and after 4 days in Ho Chi Minh city  it was a sad goodbye with memories for posterity in photos and blogs.Mekong bus representative Mr Phal.Sitha spoke to us on the intercom in Cambodian as well as English, later collecting our passports and handing us the "Immigration Forms" for entry into Cambodia.Bizarrely, this bus was the worst bus that i travelled during my marathon bus odyssey in Vietnam., although air-conditioned as were all the other buses including local city buses.At approx 0930 hrs we arrived at the Vietnam border checkpoint where we had to alight the bus and get ourselves personally stamped at  the departure terminal.From the Vietnam checkpoint it was as short drive to the Cambodian check-post where my passport was stamped along with   "Finger and Thumb prints" of both hands  being imprinted on the computer.Another  first immigration experience in my life.At 1000 hrs after finishing the Cambodian immigration formalities  our bus halted at "Flowery Restaurant"in Bavet town for breakfast.
"BAVET BORDER POST" of Cambodia.
                                                                                                                                                      Breakfast was two pork spring-roles costing one U.S $.Our next stop was at the boarding point for the ferry crossing , a long wait for a short passage across the river.At 1215 hrs our bus got onto the ferry in the conveyor system and we were transported to the other side of the narrow river.We finally arrived at the "Mekong Bus Terminus" in Phnom Penh at approx 1410 hrs.Changed buses  for the Siem Reap route, the bus leaving the depot at approx 1430 hrs.It was a long drive and finally at approx 1845 we stopped at a hotel for dinner.Dinner was "Pork fried rice"with Angkor beer at the "Stung Sen Restaurant".
Boarding " Neak Loeung Ferry"
                                                                         It was a long journey to Siem Reap, finally reaching my destination at approx 2200 hrs.A young  "Tuk-Tuk"driver Mr Buntha  who spoke decent English  dropped me at the "Mad Monkey Hostel" for 3 U.S $ fare.I also arranged the  next day's private tour  to the Ängkor  Wat complex with him ,preferring a private rather than a packaged group tour.Checked into single room nos 5 and was surprised at the large crowd in the hostel premises.They have a swimming pool on the ground floor and a "Terrace  Night-club pub" with beach sand, just mind-blowing in exotic style and innovation.This hostel is owned by an Australian .Only difference, its mostly a "White's Club" only as i was the only Asian besides the local Cambodian staff and the odd Asian tourist.
"Complimentary Draught beer" on "Mad Monkey"Terrace.
                Akin to we Indians having our own cliques based on caste, communal and other factors it seems that similarly the "Mad Monkey Hostel"is mostly preferred by "White backpackers", irrespective of Country, etc.A complimentary free beer is served to every guest and as i enjoyed my beer did interact with some of the young crowd, literally having a ball of a time.The "Bar lounge" closes at midnight s and its a very disciplined hostel, run like a leisure college.Came back to my room and had a decent nights sleep as 16 hours of bus travel  and extra-curricular activities needed some rest..
Glimpse of the first rays of sunrise  over the ANGKOR WAT.

Friday(13-12-2013) Angkor Wat tour :- Woke up at 0500 hrs realizing that i was late for departure to Angkor Wat complex, surprised that tuktuk driver/guide Mr Buntha had not arrived at the reception counter for a "Wake-up" reminder.
Sightseeing "ANGKOR WAT" on a "Tuktuk".
                                                                                                             Dressed quickly and made my way to the exit to find Mr Buntha awaiting my arrival.It was pitch dark and early morning and my schedule was to see the "Sunrise"over the Angkor Wat temples, considered one of the World's best sunrise locations.
Photographing "SUNRISE" over the Angkor Wat.
                                                                The Angkor Wat is approx 6 Kms from Siem Reap and took us approx 20 minutes to reach the main ticket booking gate.Entry fee for a single day ticket was 20 U.S $'s.The "SMALL CIRCUIT" tour covers an area of approx 30 Kms and is ideal for a days tour.According to the experts, a minimum of at least six days is required to study the entire "Angkor Wat architectural complex" and hence one day is the common tourist sightseeing agenda..For the first time in my life i came across a "Photo identity" ticket being issued, the photo taken instantaneously on computer.After issue of the ticket Mr Buntha drove me to the main entrance gate of Ängkor Wat temple complex where he parked at the common "parking lot" while i made my entry inside the main temple complex. Strict ticket checks were prevalent and in case you misplaced or lost the "Photo Identity Card"it meant forfeiture of 20U.S $'s and purchase of a new ticket. My infamous absentmindedness was kept in control due to two reasons.One,the  fact that i was anxious to see this World famous monument, seen in the media since childhood, besides, 20 U.S $'s is "Big Money" for a solo budget tourist. .
View of Angkor Wat from the third tier..
                                            ANGKOR WAT:- A BRIEF HISTORY" :-The Angkor archaeological park stretches over approx 400 sq Kms including forest areas built by the Khmer kings of Cambodia between 9th to the  15th century. "WAT" is the Khmer word for temple. The "Angkor Wat" is the largest Khmer monument among the numerous temples and is just one of the over hundred monuments scattered in the  archaeological complex..History scholars assume that the temple was built to worship Lord Vishnu and also as a mausoleum after the kings  death.King Suryavarman the Second  founded the Angkor  Wat in the middle of the 12th century.The earlier Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples but when King Jayavarman V11 converted to "Mahayana Buddhism" the new capital city of Angkor Thom came up and so also other Buddhist temples.His successor King Jayavarman V11 re-converted to Hinduism and defaced  most of the Buddhist images in the temples and even altering some statues to Hinduism. Ultimately in the struggle for religious supremacy it was Buddhism that triumphed over Hinduism and hence Cambodia is a Buddhist Country a\and  the Angkor Wat has all Hindu scripture paintings on its walls.The  walls of the Angkor Wat temple have etchings of the  Ramayana epics, very well preserved. Akin to  Jerusalem, a visit to the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap  is mandatory to any World traveller irrespective of religion or understanding Hinduism and Buddhism religions.  A  sea  of tourists were already  near the entrance surrounding the moat from which the best view is possible of the first rays of sunshine.Made my way to a good vantage point waiting "SUNRISE".
Breakfast in company of a cat at Angkor Wat temple complex.
                                                                                                                                           Eatery stall vendors pestered tourists for breakfast and i got to see the best professional camera's on display.Sunrise was expected at 0630 hrs but due to a cloudy sky we just managed a glimpse of the bright Sun rising, not good for professional photography.After Sunrise the tourist crowd dispersed  for  the normal sightseeing of the Ängkor Wat temple complex.I headed towards the food stalls and breakfast was "Ämok", a traditional Khmer  preparation with rice & coffee costing a total of 7 U.S $'s.The restaurants had hilarious Hollywood and celebrity names like "James Bond 007",LyLy No3",Anna No 2, Harry Potter No 5,Justine Wellom-99.My eatery was named "Tiger Woods-01", the numbers representing the serial order of location on the complex site.Came across a beautiful freak dwarf cat near this restaurant. It had a docked tail akin to a bobcat a real rare specimen, a freak of nature.Took a few photo's of this cat reminding me of my own two  cats back home in Mumbai.After breakfast began my exploration of the main "Ängkor Wat" temple .
Corridor of Angkor Wat Temple with etchings of Ramayana on the Wall.
Sightseeing  "Small Circuit" of  the Angkor Wat:-While exploring the Angkor complex came across two  Caucasians, one man  painting his face akin to as theatre actor while his colleague was filming  the same on camera.As usual i approached them and on inquiry learnt that they were "Hare Krishna"devotees from Estonia.Mr Deenadayal  performed for "Religious Krishna Shows" in various country's while his companion Mr Aphiram accompanied him and helped in publicizing his art. They were making a video for "Youtube" against the backdrop of the World famous Angkor Wat temple..Finally after completing my ground tour of Angkor Wat  walked the stairs to the topmost level  of Angkor Wat  where the view was breathtaking, just jungle on two sides of the temple.
Surrounding forest seen from top tier of Angkor Wat Temple.
           This forest canopy view from the  top reminded me of the Sigriya fortress in Sri Lanka.After completion of the Angkor Wat temple made my way back to the entrance/exit gate and met tuktuk driver/ guide                    Mr Buntha who next drove me to the "Angkor Thom " complex  quite a long drive.
4 Headed Sculptor of Bayon .

"BAYON TEMPLE" complex
                                                The 4-faced statues of the Bayon temple  situated in the Angkop Thom are impressive although in ruins.This temple was built in late 12th or first half of the 13th century,the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist king Jayavarman V11.From the Bayon temple it was next a steep climb up a flight of wooden stairs to view the Baphuon temple.It is a three tiered temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.Absolutely tiring. Next visited Phimarlakas temple, all in ruins.A long walk from here led me to the "Ëlephant terrace"and next to it "The Leper Kings" palace.There was a replica model of the "Leper King" the original  being kept for viewing in the museum in Phnom Penh..I had forgotten to carry my water bottle and was literally dying of thirst when i spotted the tourist vendors shops.Drank one of the best coconut water from one of the largest coconuts.The coconut kernel was my lunch as the "Ämok" breakfast was akin to a normal lunch or dinner.
Unbelievable ruins and massive tree's
                                                                                                                                                        As usual  searched for my tuktuk and we next headed towards  "Ta Prohm", the temple complex made world famous through its gigantic tree roots and trees in films, literature and documentaries.I felt like a child realizing his fantasies come true on seeing these gigantic miracles of nature and human effort. This entire temple complex was in ruins and some parts have been gradually re-built with archaeological assistance from the Govt of India.After this site we next drove to the last site on the "Small circuit tourist route" of Angor Wat  which was Prasar Banteay Kdei temple, again a site of magnificent ruins.During the entire tour  we tourists would be pestered by young children and adults trying to sell their curio's and goods all speaking reasonably  decipherable  good English.This was in complete contrast to my experience in Vietnam where touring U.S.S.R and Japan in the 1990's seemed easier than Vietnam in 2013!I was totally haggard after the entire small Angkor Wat tour  and decided to go back to my hostel. En-route  came across a group of plush mountain bike cycles parked on the side of the highway.Stopped and inquired about the riders and discovered "ËXODUS" cycle tours company based in London.This company conducts packaged cycling tours over country's and city's across the World.This large group of cyclists were on a cycling tour from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City .A back-up bus follows the cyclists and at times they travel by bus with the cycles hauled onto a transport  van that travels with the entourage, akin to the "Tour De France".On the way to the hostel purchased my bus ticket for Phnom Penh  at a local tourist company  finally arriving at "Mad Monkey hostel" at approx 1330 hrs.Tuktuk driver/guide Mr Buntha's fees amounted to 12 U.S $'s .Booked a "Tonle Sap Lake Tour" for the next day with the hostel receptionist and also settled my hostel accommodation bills.The swimming pool was busy and hence decided to have a cool afternoon swim.Did a few "Ünderwater lengths" in the small 10 meters pool, utterly refreshing.Came back to my room and after a hot shower decided to explore my surroundings.Crocodile  leather  and crocodile handicraft stores are common in Siem Reap reminding me of "Big Game" handicrafts officially sold  in  East African Country's  upto 1980's when i last   visited the ports of  Mombasa, Dar-es-salaam and Maputo during employment  as a  "Marine Engineer" on a cargo ship..
"STUFFED CROCODILE" & Leather Products for sale.
                                       Crocodile leather wallets cost 140 U.S $'s while bags cost over 1000$'s, all from legally farmed crocodiles."Crocodile Burgers"are served akin to hamburgers in Westernized restaurants unlike the normal crocodile kebabs i ate in Mui Ne.Hope unlike the rapid decimation of wild-life in Africa  due to poaching the same fate doesn't happen to the crocodile in South East Asia.. Exchanged  a few dollars into the local Cambodian currency at the local bank near the hostel.In Siem Reap it seems the shops, restaurants, etc all cater to the "FOREIGN TOURIST INDUSTRY"with all prices quoted in dollars rather than the local currency which is the "Cambodian Riel".Thanks to the "ÄNGKOR WAT", tourists from all nations flock to Siem Reap and hence Ü.S Dollars are the   most common currency in use in the city. Discovered the famous "Pub Street"of Siaem Reap and the "Night Market", all within walking distance from "Mad Monkey Hostel". Throughout my tour of Vietnam i was pestered by the numerous massage parlours to try any of their massages including foot massage. Walking through the streets came across a Indian restaurant and spoke to its owner in Hindi,ages since i spoke the language after  leaving Mumbai,homesickness nostalgia.Strolling around the beautiful clean streets  i suddenly spotted two tanks filled with small fish with the advertisement "FISH MASSAGE".For the first time in my life had a group of fish nimble at my tired legs, something real soothing.
                                                                                                                                                                              Along with the "Fish Massage" came  a complimentary beer and honestly, it was nirvana.A few foreigners followed my example and were also happy with the results."FISH MASSAGE"was a unique health therapy i discovered in Cambodia. Never saw any "Fish Massage" tanks in Vietnam, all the fish in tanks were either for eating or aquarium exhibits. Siem reap is filled with all types"of "massage parlours" as is Vietnam.In the night strolled down the "Night Market"and "Pub Street", the areas absolutely live with lighting but i feel that the economic downturn is having its impact on the tourist business, most shops and eateries empty of customers.For the first time in my life ate a snake,the same along with scorpions, tarantula's and other insects being sold by a street vendor near pub street.This was not the "Cobra" but water snakes of the Tonle Sap lake, a bunch of them barbecued. The snake meat was crispy and seemed salted with small thorns akin to fish but not "FISHY" in taste.
"WATER-SNAKE" as a snack ! ? Ask "KING COBRA" !
                                                                                                                                                                                                I hope that New Yorks "Explorors Club" makes me a honorary member of their society!Dinner was at a normal restaurant, "Fried Rice" with draught beer.On the way back to my hostel had a ice-cream cone, the dessert after "Snake-Tasting". A very eventful, hectic, exhausting and memorable day.

 Kampong  Khleang village on stilts on Tonle Sap Lake.

Saturday(14-12-2013) Kampong  Khleang and Flooded Forest Tour :- My tour guide Mr Piseta  of "Tara river  boat tours"arrived at the hostel at approx 0845 hrs and bizarrely i was the only tourist in the "Package Tour"!It was just driver Paul, guide Mr Piseta and myself, akin to a private tour. It was a straight drive on a highway  with a deviation from the main road  and on the way passed through the commercial "Crocodile Farm" in Rollus village, a paid tourist attraction.At approx 0925 hrs reached the "Ticket Counter" for booking the entry fee ticket and the boat to visit "Kampong Khleang" village.The tour charges were 38U.S $'s booked through "Mad monkey Hostel",this being akin to a personal private tour.
On the motor boat cruising on "TONLE SAP LAKE".

The "Tonle Sap" lake is the largest fresh water lake in S.E Asia with the World's richest fish catch.In the Monsoon season from the river literally trebles in size engulfing vast rice field plantations and forests and hence the houses built on stilts as well as floating houses.During Summer the lake shrinks exposing the submerged land which becomes rice plantations and forests.The winter months  is the best time to experience the unique vegetation and flooding system of  the villages situated on the Tonle Sap lake.After purchasing the entry ticket we walked our way towards the boat as there was a tourist traffic jam on the narrow road, normally flooded in monsoon and hence a mud road.On reaching the boat  and boarding it the next big job was maneuvering this boat through the narrow channel into the Tonle Sap lake.As the lake gradually dries so also does the channel decrease in size. At approx  0950 hrs our boat finally cleared the channel traffic and headed towards our destination,"Kampong  Pluk  fishing village", a cluster of three fishing villages built on stilts..
Entering the "VILLAGE ON STILTS" on Tonle Sap Lake.
                         There were lots of other tourist boats moving in a convoy file , akin to road traffic. At  approx 1030 hrs on approaching the fishing village was greeted by the sight of large houses on granite stilts, the stilts submerged in water.In the months of April/May this same water passage is navigable by road and the surrounding area becomes fertile rice fields.! The villagers then move out of these stilted houses onto a temporary wet land in the Tonle Sap lake  for fishing purposes returning to this permanent housing back again during the flooded  wet season.The rarest of rare fishing village on Planet Earth. The "Kompong Pluk  police station" was a prominent building on granite stilts situated at the entrance of the "Fishing Village".Also prominent was the village  public high school built on stilts. On entering the main fishing village the sight was unbelievable,  a complete township  on stilts built upon the lake. There were numerous fishing canoes, boats and fishing nets across the floating village township.Guide Mr Piseta explained me the basic facts and living conditions of this unique fishing community.There was a small island on which a Buddhist temple was built surrounded by dry land created by the receding waters of Tonle Sap lake on which stood the  stilt fishing village.
On dry land in the "VILLAGE ON STILTS".
                                                                                                              Our boat anchored on this unique island and on alighting the boat  walked towards the "Primary School".A foreign  organisation was conducting a free medical cam for the villagers. I was then shown the "Primary School"where kids were being taught, very  similar to a normal classrooms before the "Computer Era" of education.Guide Piseta was excellent and answered my queries and catered to my  inquisitive nature. I saw a giant fishing trap being built by a fisherman, meant to trap the famous "Mekong Catfish".Witnessed the re-charging of "Batteries"by a small diesel generator, the 'Batteries"being a source of electricity during the peak flood months.The cost of re-charging was 50 cents per battery. Examined the common "Stilt Pagoda houses" all having a foundation of "Timber Stilts"that last 20 to 30 years.
Fabricating a "FISH TRAP" to catch "CAT FISH".
                                                                                                                                                            The flooring of the raised houses consists of either bamboo or wooden planks.The roofs of all houses were made of common sheet metal.Saw shrimps being dried to produce the famous "Fish paste" and the villagers engrossed in their normal daily chores. Visited the Buddhist Temple complex built on stilts and observed the monks preparing lunch.At approx 1110 hrs we finished the tour of the fishing village and headed towards the floating crocodile and fish farms.Lunch was a hamper of fruits and coca-cola consisting  of  tasty bananas and pineapples.Our boat docked at "Samros Kompung Pluk" floating restaurant, a typical tourist show-piece. The restaurant had small cages, the first cage having  a few baby crocodiles, the next cage  a python and the last cage a pair of rabbits.
Touring the "FLOODED FOREST" on paddle canoe.
                   It was akin to visiting a "Exotic Pet Shop"rather than a "Crocodile farm"! A small enclosure  tied to the barge contained small cat fish, the common variety seen in fish markets.From this restaurant i boarded a small canoe and was given a amazing tour of the "Flooded Forests".The canoe maneuvered its way through the dense forest, now totally submerged but completely dry in Summer a normal land forest  when the Tonle Sap lake waters recede.Cambodia has a high mosquito density and the short tour of the "Flooded Forests"made me realize the dangers of malaria  in this area.After the memorable canoe tour  boarded our main boat and at approx 1200 hrs we headed back to the main land.On reaching  the main land it was a short walk  on the temporary mud track to the station wagon.On the way saw a few stalls selling "Barbecued snakes", similar to the one i ate yesterday.Guide Mr Piseta told me that these were common water snakes fished in the Tonle Sap lake.Field rats are also popular food amongst the villagers as they are found in  abundance in the rice fields once the waters start receding.It was a pleasant road journey back to the hostel and Mr Piseta showed me  the local Cambodian "Leutek Market" and the "Royal Residence grounds"as we passed these landmarks on the road.Arrived at the "Mad Monkey Hostel"at approx 1345 hrs, a pleasant and luxurious sightseeing tour.Mr Piseta had to conduct a another tour in the afternoon, a busy and a very capable tourist guide.
"Royal  Palace Residence" in Siem Reap.
                                                                                                                                                                                     Had  a brief rest on the hostel internet , the only time i sat down during my marathon tour besides the normal  routine of sleeping at night. Later  made my way into the street for a tour of the "Royal Residence grounds"and its plush adjoining locality.Lunch consisted of a "Noodle soup" at the restaurant next to "Mad Monkey Hostel".It was approx 1500 hrs and hence had a few hours of sightseeing before sunset.It was approximately a 20 minutes walk to the "Royal Residence Grounds" which also had a Buddhist temple, the "Yeah Tep Shrine"  facing it.Saw some caged birds and small turtles being sold outside the temple , the birds being set free by the buyers, a religious custom in Buddhism.Strolled through the Garden having beautiful large trees  with large money-plants entwined around them. One large tree was also a roosting place for bats.On one side of the ground was a exhibition on "Refugee Asylum seekers" and gazed through the same.
"Raffles Grand Hotel"
                                                                                   The "Raffles Grand Hotel" was situated on the opposite side of the garden facing the  "Prince Palace".Entered the plush hotel and inquired about the average daily room charges which were only approx 400 U.S $'s/Day . Who said the World is undergoing a economic depression ? The "Siem Reap" river runs parallel to the  "Royal  Residence "and hence decided to walk the entire stretch upto the "Öld Market".I must have slowed down with age but have compensated with experience and hence new roads , new cities and new Country's are just a jig-saw puzzle to be solved.It was a pleasant walk along the "Siem  riverfront" with plush buildings facing the river akin to sea coastal plush city's.Came across the post-office and purchased the cheapest stamp, bizarrely ,U.S $'s being the form of price quotation for the stamps, a total tourist economy.On the way to the "Öld Market"came across a handicapped book-seller who had his tragic life-story printed on a paper, a victim of the Khymer Rouge "civil war" land mines.Like him, there are numerous handicapped land-mine victims who make a living through either street singing or requesting charitable aid.Having just seen the "Refugee Asylum Seekers" photo's and story's realized that life is complicated for everyone, irrespective of caste, Country or sex. At present "Ëconomic Depression" is creating havoc and is plainly visible in the tourist industry. Siem Reep's "Öld Market" was identical to "Ben Thanh" market in Saigon although a little smaller and with less meat and fish products. There was no "Live Fish" in the market as was in Vietnam but a variety of "Dried Fish".
Variety of "DRIED FISH" in Old Market.
                                                    Most prominent among the meat proucts was "Dried Beef"and  "Pork/Beef sausages".From the market made my way down the now familiar "Pub Street" and "Night Market street" towards my hostel. Stepped into  the "Park Hyatt Siem Reap" hotel situated just a few meters from "Mad Monkey hostel"and inquired the "Room rates".The hotel receptionist told me that the rates varied according to the tourist season and that the hotel was booked, the room rentals being only 390 U.S$'s/day!I have strolled through all the "Night Makets" in Siem Reap and found most shops lacking tourist foot-falls and hence the "5-Star" hotel rates baffled my logical thinking.Tourist guide Mr Piseta told me that the order of ranking of nationalities visiting seam Reap were as follows 1) China 2) Korea 3)Japan and 4) Western tourists.I myself noticed the maximum number of Oriental tourists at Angkor Wat temple complex and westerners mostly in pubs of indulging in adventure sports like cycling around the city.Hope "MAD MONKEY HOSTEL" maintains its standard as this small and happening hostel is as good as a "5-Star hotel" for pound to pound comparison of value for money.The hostel swimming pool is a big hit with travellers, most of them sunbathing as most are  Caucasian tourists.I was the only Asian to have used this pool in the last two days, an excellent clean pool where the bottom is visible akin to glass.Only drawback is of "Mosquito's" in the vicinity and since they don't have air-conditioning i presume that summer months at 45*c would be torturous. For the rentals they charge, this is definitely one of the best hostels, only difference, its more of a "White Club" with very few coloureds as guests. Kudo's, i explored a new type of hostel living in "Mad Monkey Hostel" with the name truly describing the place, great and crazy terrace beach  night parties with swimming in the afternoons.
Victims of "LAND MINES" perform on the street
                                                                                                                                            This was my last night in Siem Reap and hence decided to explore "Pub Street"in the night after dark.Strolled towards the "Ärts Night market"and in two days i presume  the shop owners and hawkers knew me by sight, the loner regularly loafing on those streets without having a "MASSAGE" ! Drank a unique Siem Reap mixed fruit juice that tasted like ice-cream rather than a liquid juice.Saw advertisements of a free  "ÄPSARA DANCE SHOW" at the "Ärts Night Market"and decided to see the same but found out that the show had closed.Dejected i walked towards "Pub Street" hoping to find some pub playing live music.On entering "Pub Street" felt i had been trans-located to some European city, the entire "Street No8(Pub Street)" decorated in lights although not in the Christmas/New Year festive mood as in Vietnam.Entered the "Temple Club", a plush restaurant and was surprised to know that they had a free "Äpsara Show" on the first floor for diners.This restaurant was modeled on the "Ängkor Wat", the ground floor serving as a restaurant cum disco club while the first floor had formal "Khmer traditional entertainment".Went to the first floor and ordered "Khmer Duck curry/rice", the restaurant packed with tourists.
"APSARA DANCE" performance at "TEMPLE HOTEL".
                                                                                                                                            There was a large flat screen television on one side  of the restaurant showing the English premier league match of "Ärsenal V/s Manchester City" while the main Apsara  dance performance stage was in the centre of this plush restaurant. .It was double entertainment, a soccer match on television and a live dance programme on the restaurant stage. The Apsara dance show was punctual and started at 1950 hrs, the musicians seated on the corner of the floor's stage playing their instruments  while the dancers performed the "Äpsara Dances" on the main stage, very similar to Bharat Natyam of India.It was just destiny that brought me to this restaurant, not a pre-planned idea.It was a entertaining dinner with the choreography of classic dance and instrumental Khmer music.Khmer food is similar to Indian food, only less pungent and after  leaving Mumbai it was only in Cambodia that i tasted "Curry". The "Äpsara Show "got over at approx 2115 hrs and so did my dinner. After dinner went to the ground floor restaurant which had English D.J music playing and dancers on the floor.Some  people were also playing "Pool", very popular in Vietnam and Cambodia.After spending a few minutes walked out into the street and found huge screens erected showing the "Manchester City V/s Arsenal" match.Manchester City won the match 6-3, a mini England in Siem Reap.
Ultimate in Siem Reap Nightlife "PUB STREET(No 8)"
                                        After the match   entered another nightclub "Triangle" which had live singers performing.After a few minutes at the "Triangle" walked back to my hostel, end of a eventful day and night.My shuttle bus arrived late at 2330 hrs making me nervous on missing the bus.The shuttle bus  as usual collected other tourists and we finally boarded the main bus of "Gold V.I.P Transport" at approx midnight.It was on alighting the  bus that i realized that i had left my "Vietnam Hat" on the shuttle bus,my infamous absentmindedness not deserting me!
"Royal Palace" in Phnom Penh.

Sunday(15-12-2013) Arrival Pnom Penh and Exploration:- The sleeper bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a torture, the worst "Sleeper Bus" during my entire tour on buses.The tour bus company's name was  "Gold VIP bus transport service Co Ltd" and by "VIP" i wonder if it stands for "Very Important Prisoner" !? My journey was akin to being confined to a prison, legs shackled and body cramped into a small space, Thankfully the air-condition made the journey torturous but bearable.At approx 0700 hrs we arrived at Phnom Penh and on alighting the bus found one of my new slippers missing.The bus cleaner gave me a old pair to compensate my loss and hence my tour of Phnom Penh began on a negative tone. A "Tuktuk" driver  took me to "Long Lin House" a restaurant cum accommodation hotel situated in prime tourist Phnom Penh  on street No 19. It was a 4-storey old Paris style building with wooden stairs and ghostly quiet, unlike "Mad Monkey hostel" which was the definition of youth life in "First World Country's"...Booked a single non-A/c room and paid the "Tuk Tuk Driver" 2 U S $'s for his services.The main currency exchange in Cambodia was  the "Riel" and 1 U.S $ = 3,984 Riel.  Made my way into "Room nos 361" on the third floor, a small compact room with a brand new Sony  T.V showcasing all the English cable channels.
Phnom Penh Museum
                                          After a bathe made my way out of the hotel armed with a "Tourist Guide" layout map  and had a breakfast of "Prawn noodles" in a restaurant on the same road.My first exploration visit was to the museum.Entry fee was 5U.S $'s and the museum contained sculptors of the Khmer civilization, most notably from the Angkor Wat ruins.The museum lies a short walking distance from the Royal p-alace and was opened   in 1920 by King Sisowath. Got to study Hinduism and Buddhism  through my museum visits in Nepal and now in Phnom Penh museum.After the museum visit went back to the hotel, a short walk from the museum.The hotel manager guided me on my queries and hence i next visited the "Psah Thmay(Khymer Language) market commonly called Central Market" , a walk of approx 20 minutes from the hotel.The "Central Market" was built in 1937 during the French colonization and is large, designed with a dome in its center and very clean. The flowers section  of this market were the prime attraction with beautiful variety of flowers on sale.
"FLOWERS" for sale in Central Market.
                                                                                                                                                                  Strolled around the market, a total "Marketing Man" with years of experience.Strangely, couldn't find the fish and meat  sections of this large market. ! Suddenly i spotted the most unusual sight in my life, a elderly Caucasian  man  about to start his motorbike with his pet dog seated in front of him.Mr Ben a Cambodian Australian settled in Phnom Penh for 15 years was the ultimate model of the "Harley Davidson biker" with his long beard  and rugged aged looks although he was riding a classic Honda. After allowing me to take his photos he roared away on his motorcycle with his dog seated in  front, a real tourist attraction.
Australian Cambodian Mr Ben with his dog on a Honda bike.
                                                                                                                   Lunch was at a restaurant near "Central Market", a dish of "Pork Fried Rice". From Central market went back to my hostel and realized that i had lost my hotel room key."Bad Luck" was following me right from the time my sandals got misplaced in the bus, not to mention the hell of a bus journey although i paid the normal bus fare. Cheating is rampant in most South East Asian country's and in 2013 considered very high in the "World Corruption Index" ratings. The Hotel manager gave me the "Duplicate Key" and hoping that i didn't  lose that by  the end of my tour !Spotted a beautiful pure black cat in the hotel and became a model for that cat.Strangely i observed that most cats in Cambodia have their tails docked.Later made my way to the "Royal Palace" which opens at 1400 hrs in the afternoon. En-route to the palace met a motorcycle taxi driver, numerous in Phnom Penh and arranged a tour of  the "Killing Fields" and "S-21 Prison"as also tourist sites for a stipulated fee.Mr Mom Sokiaa agreed to pick me up from my hotel at 0800 hrs the next day.The entry charges to the palace grounds was  25,000 Dongs and entry to many parts of the Palace was restricted as the present King, His Majesty Norodum.Sihamoni  lived on the Palace grounds.The Royal Palace complex is divided into four main compounds.On the South side is the "SILVER PAGODA" and in the north is the Khemarin palace.The Central compound contains the "THRONE HALL" while to the West is the "Private sector(Inner Court)".The various buildings in the Palace complex were built over a time-frame, some old buildings demolished while new were built, some as recent as the 1960's.Some old buildings date back to the 19th century and hence the architecture is partly modern and partly old Khmer architecture. The Royal Palace  was established in 1866 and tourists can get a glimpse of the "Throne Hall" from the exterior.It drizzled, and got to experience "December rain" in Phnom Penh.
Quenching thirst with "Cambodian Coconut", one of the World's largest.
                   After a normal tour and photography came out of the Palace grounds  and drank the largest coconut, the classic health drink in Cambodia. These coconuts are real large, giant size compared to the coconuts in India.Later made my way towards the riverside "Sisowath Quay" and got a actual glimpse of the beauty of Phnmom Penh.. Phnom Penh was called  the "Pearl of Asia" in the 1920's during  French Colonial rule as it was one of  the most beautiful French  city's  in Indo-China.Spotted a few men fishing on the river-side and walked towards the river embankment.The "Torturous bus journey" from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and 14 days of non-stop touring did make me realize that the body needed some rest as do machines.Went back towards my hotel, stepped into a "Internet Cafe" and took some physical rest on the keyboards.Later in the evening  explored my street  and realized that it was a complete "Tourist Street", mostly Western tourists. Came across a sturdy Jamaican who greeted me, himself being part of a small group of tourists sitting  in a street-side cafe hotel.Akin to Paris, street-side cafe's  lined entire Street No 19, my residential street.Inquired for any "Live Music concerts" and stumbled upon  "Sundance Inn & Saloon"situated on the opposite side of my hotel.
Irishman Mr James.Whitehead strumming "Country Music"
                                                                                     It was a plush club cum restaurant having "Pool Tables"and a "10 meter swimming pool". Seemed to be a "British Club"as all the patrons were British tourists.A young Irishman  Mr James .Whitehead was singing country songs playing the guitar.Later his colleague Mr James.Dovaxas took over , singing solo while playing the guitar. Something different compared to normal rock and pop music.Over two draught beers relaxed at this small restaurant listening to live Country music.At approx 1800 hrs made my way out of the club  and strolled down "Sisowath Quay", a very long river-side promenade.The entire riverfront is lined with pubs and hotels.This  confluence of the Tonle Sap , Mekong and Bassac rivers in Phnom Penh is called  "CAHAKTOMUK".All the important tourist sites are clustered between "STREET  178 and STREET 140".  As i was wearing torn jeans and  a loner not interested in massages by women  some peddlers  must have mistaken me for a "drug addict".In numerous places on the street  i was asked to buy "Ganja", the hemp that defines  Phnom Penh's seedy night-life besides its brothels. Saw  the locals playing the game of "Badminton football"as in Vietnam and a few  playing street football on the riverside footpath.As in Vietnam the riverside  quay had a row of "Exercise Machines"meant for the general public.
Young men & Women  exercising  on  Sisowath Quay boulevard.
                                                                                                                                                    The "Exercise Machines" were totally occupied with people of all ages, kids to senior citizens.At night ,in the dark ,the "Tonlay Sap River" resembles a sea with small and large boats criss-crossing the river.Compared to Vietnam or even Siem Reap the social life in Phnom Penh is sublime, the streets not decorated to the hilt as is pub street in "Siem Reap". Individual pubs and hotels do have decorations but  the streets  are otherwise  very subdued with a sober atmosphere.Came back towards my hotel street and on the way decided to try the local street cuisine in a very crowded street cafe.The dinner of fried frog, chicken wing,meat balls and duck embryo was something new and a surprise.
Popular street food:-"Fried Frog and Duck Emrbyo" for dinner.
                                                            At first i though the "Duck Egg"was rotten on seeing a blackish  yolk only realizing that it was the fetus of a  " baby duckling", complete with feathers and beak!This is one of the most infamous street cuisines of Vietnam and Cambodia, the embryo duck egg.Digested my "Taboo Dinner" with beer and made my way back to the hotel. Dessert was "Choco Bar ice-cream".Had a normal nights sleep, my average of not more than 5 hours in 24 hours!

Monday(16-1202013). Tour of  "Choeung Ek Genocidal center(Killing Fields)" and "S-21 prison":- Woke up as usual and surfed the television, excellent English programs on cable channels.After my normal toilet routines dressed formally and walked down my hotel street for breakfast.Entered the "Blue Dolphin" restaurant , a typical "Paris Cafe"style restaurant with chairs on the pavement situated a few meters from my hotel.Had a typical continental breakfast "2 fried eggs,bacon,sausages, bread/butter/jam" along with hot coffee.Browsed through the local "Phnom Penh post"a  tabloid style English newspaper.Read about the startling news of a riot in "LITTLE INDIA" in Singapore, something unbelievable. I was familiar with Singapore having visited the Country numerous times and always admired its discipline and economic progress.The news was startling although the reasons a bit obvious to people familiar with the employment and living conditions of expatriate low income workers of Singapore, one of the World's costliest country's. A Australian tourist seated on the next chair was also having his breakfast and developed a conversation with him.He was employed in a local hospital and he told me that the reason for many Australian tourists in Cambodia could be due to the numerous charities run by various Australian groups.After a  heavy breakfast made my way to the hotel.Motorcycle taxi rider Mr Mom .Sokiaa was punctual and arrived at 0800 hrs at my hotel.It was a awesome double seat ride through peak Phnom Penh morning traffic and happy to have "hedged" my solo travel with a "Travel Insurance" bet! "Choeung Ek(Killing Fields)"  is approx 15 Kms south of Phnom Penh and hence a long motorbike ride on the pillion seat. On my previous solo tours i never ever took a "Travel Insurance" guarantee.Peak hour traffic in Phnom Penh is chaotic although slow, besides, the pillion rider never wears a helmet.
                                                        On the way we stopped at the "Ïndependence Memorial" for a brief photo shoot.It was a long ride to "Choeung Ek Genocidal center(Killing Fields)".The roads within Pnomh Penh city are excellent and wide but dangerous once outside the city limits.As a motorcyclist and cyclist back home in Mumbai i understand the difference of riding on good and bad roads.A slight miscalculation by the driver could result in a severe fall or mishap,besides,  the pillion rider is not given a safety helmet.On reaching "Choeung Ek Genocidal center(Killing Fields)" was surprised by the calmness and serenity of the location. The entrance fee was 6 U.S $'S and every visitor was given a "Äudio guide", included in the entrance fee charges.The Ultra-Communist "Pol Pot Regime" ruled Cambodia between  1975 to 1979 and about 20,00 people including foreigners were executed at the  "Choeung Ek Genocidal center(Killing Fields)". It was a excellent and traumatic tour , the "Äudio Guide"explaining the significance of every site numbered serially on pressing the audio- guide's numbered buttons, akin to using a cell-phone.A memorial stupa with rows of skulls  of the victims of the genocide is the final spot of this tour of the "Killing Fields"of Cambodia.
At entrance to  "Choeung Ek Genocidal center(Killing Fields)" with "Audio Guide".

"GENOCIDE VICTIMS" in the memorial Killing fields stupa.

After finishing my sightseeing of a tragic chapter in Cambodian history  we next went to the "Toul Tom Pong  market " better known  as the "Russian Market", the oldest market in Phnom Penh dating back to the "Çold war" era of World politics when U.S.S.R was a superpower.This market was large akin to "Central Market" but dirtier and having all the hall-marks of the "Öld World Asian" markets.As a "Marketing Expert" strolled around this large market and had a "Cold Coffee"at a prominently advertised stall inside the market.Honestly, i found "Vietnam Cold Coffee" just irreplaceable akin to "Çoca Cola brand" although this stall had rave reviews from elite tourists who had visited "Russian Market".Purchased some clothes and later discovered a complete  motorcycle spares shops in this market.Never before have i seen "Motorcycle Spare parts" displayed in such fashion, ranging from tyres, carburetors, engines and ending to the tiniest nuts and bolts of  a  motorcycle.
"Motorcycle Spares" in "Toul Tom Pong(Russian Market)".
"OLYMPIC STADIUM"  of Phnom Penh.
             A skilled motorcycle mechanic could assemble a "First Class Mobike" with parts purchased from "Russian Market".Reminded me of my years on ships as a "Marine Engineer" and handling "ships spares".From "Russian Market"we rode to the  "Ölympic Stadium", a landmark of Phnom Penh.This was a "World class"  stadium  opened in 1964.Among the facilities are "Olympic Size pools" for swimming and diving as also a indoor  volley-ball court.  It was a multi-purpose stadium but used mainly for soccer matches. The Pol Pot regime used the stadium for executions of the officials of the former  regime and it went into disrepair over the years.It was refurnished and renewed recently in 2000.It now has a massive  grand-stand, astro-turf ground and a giant television screen.Irish singer Ronan.Keating held a concert in this stadium in 2007, the first ever International concert in the Country.It has a capacity for 50,000 spectators.From the Ölympic Stadium" headed towards  the "Toul Sleng genocide museum(S-21 Prison)".This was a former school built in 1962 that was converted into a secret prison during the Pol Pot era of Cambodian politics.
                                                                                                                                                                                          Touring this genocide museum makes you realize that freedom of  living and being alive  is a precious commodity,irrespective of wealth or social status.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum(S 21)" formerly  a primary school.
                                                                                                                                                   Its unbelievable to think that a normal school could be used as a prison for mass execution and torture.Walking along the school ground observed a bizarre sight of a stray cat stalking birds,almost catching one, nature at work.The school buildings   comprised of two storeys  each  and was formerly "Tuol Sleng primary school" and "Tuol Svay prey high school".Came across a old man, Mr Bou Meng (72 years)a survivor of this prison who had written a book on his experiences and was selling the same to tourists.I photographed him not realizing his importance until i returned back home to  Mumbai and began writing my blog along with my Internet research .Mr Bou Meng a painter by profession and Mr Chum.Mey, a mechanic by profession were the rare survivors of the approximately 12,000 people sent to their deaths in  Tuol Sleng jail during the Pol Pot regime.At a "United Nations " backed tribunal in 2009 both these men testified against the crimes of their torturer Mr Kaing Guek Eav,better  known to the Western World as "Duch".   After visiting the 4 buildings  of this prison museum that was once a common school made my way to the exit.                                                                           .My tour ended at approx 1400 hrs and i was dropped at my hotel.Informed driver Mom Sokiaa to take me to the airport the next day since i always prefer dealing with a known person, especially while  commuting double-seat on the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh.I did have a "Travel Insurance" but being safe is better than being sorry in a hospital in a new country.
Mr Bau .Meng one of the only 3 survivors of "Tuol Sleng S-21" prison.
Classic river view restaurants in Phnom Penh.
                            Had a brief rest at my hotel, watched television,the best of cable t.v on display.Later in the evening went down my usual stroll along the riverfront, that closely resembles "Marine Lines" in Mumbai(Bombay).Decided to have a beer on one of the "River-Facing" restaurants of which there were numerous.During "Happy Hours" which was normally upto 1900 hrs the cost of draught beer was 50 cents / glass, cheap compared to the normal 1 or 1.5 U.S $/pint. Had a draught beer sitting on the street facing the "Chaktomuk(Confluence of Tonle Sap, Mekong & Bassac rivers)", a classic location on a semi- full moon night. Picked up a conversation with a British couple dining next to me, tourists who had visited India and praised the country.From this hotel made my way to the river front and strolling further down the boulevard came across a group of young men and women exercising to music played on a pair of loudspeakers.they were mimicking the "Gangum Style" dance , a  Worldwide phenomenon.
"Gangnum Style"  Exercise dancing on  Riverfront.
                                                                                                                                    Brought back memories of Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon).Later decided to visit one of the roof-top restaurants to get a birds eye view of the river-front and hence entered "Frangipania River view hotel".Surprisingly the hotel didn't have a lift and hence had to walk all the way to the 4th floor, the highest point of most of the hotels facing the river-front.Later visited  the "Chaktomak river restaurant" and sat outside on the pavement chairs facing the traffic and river-front. It was a classic "Full-Moon Night". Had a "Passion Mojito" cocktail with the "Full Moon" overhead, the first time i had a cocktail on my tour, surviving entirely on beer and on one occasion sipping "Cobra Wine".From this restaurant made my way back to "Street No 172" , my residence hotel. In Phnom Penh most streets are named by numbers barring a few streets named after prominent politicians or personalities including a street named after India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal.Nehru. Later  went back towards my hotel  and had  "Snails" on the roadside local restaurant , a favourite with the local crowd.From slugs progressed to the "Blue Dolphin" and had a  proper dinner of "Fish Amok", the Cambodian prime delicacy, served in Royal Khmer style.
The last dinner of my 17 day tour. "FISH AMOK".
                                                                                     Cambodian curry is sweet compared to Indian curry and the "Amok" was not a delicacy to my taste buds.Met a British teacher teaching for a  "I.B.( International Baccaulaureate)" school in Phnom Penh and had a interesting discussion with him.He had also visited India and had been in Phnom Penh for the last eight years as a teacher.After dinner ,dessert was the normal ice-cream and ended the night blogging down my travel memoirs until closure of the Internet cafe at 2230 hrs.The last day and night in Pnom Penh was memorable and educational.
Tuesday(17-12-2013) Departure Phnom Penh :- After my normal toilet routines came down to the hotel lobby. Ordered a coffee awaiting the arrival of motorcycle taxidriver Mr Mom.Sokiaa.The check-in time for tourists at Phnom Penh airport was 2 hours before departure .Met a lady at the hotel who co-incidentally happened to be Indian and residing in the same hotel.Mrs Geeta.Subbarao , a Banglorean was on a tour of Cambodia, a grandmother travelling alone.Discussed  travel and tours travelled until motorcyclist taxidriver Sukiaa's arrival.
Arriving at Phnom Penh  airport on Mom .Sokiaa's mobike.
                                                                                             At approx 0715 hrs we left for Phnom Penh International airport, a adventurous early morning ride in the heavy traffic of Phnom Penh. It had rained at night and the sky cloudy and hence hoped not to get drenched on the way to the airport. Arrived at the airport terminal at approx 0745 hrs and made my way into the sparsely crowded airport. After the necessary formalities which included "Finger print security checks" finally made my way to the departure lounge.Cambodia has been the only Country toured  where  the entry and exit security checks  involved "Fingerprinting & Facial Photograph". Got updated on the latest  "Duty-Free" products, most important liquor prices.Ultimately, my solo backpacker tour that began on Saturday(30-11-2013) had finally reached its end story on Tuesday(17-12-2013) with my departure from Cambodia to India. The travel included changing 8 different   A/c Luxury long distance buses beginning from Hanoi in Vietnam and ending in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Spent a total of 3 nights sleeping in "Sleeper Buses" during the cross-country travels.Checked into the plane and onto my window seat  No 34A. Departure of Thai airways "Flight TG581" was prompt at 10.00 hrs  in partial drizzle of rain. The normal breakfast was served on the short one hour flight to Bangkok.Touched down at "Suvamabhumi airport" in Bangkok at 1100 hrs and made my way to the transit lounge after the normal routine security checks.Thanks to the internet facilities in the airport managed to edit my blog as well as be busy until departure at 1855hrs.As usual purchased duty free whisky, a "Chivas Regal Combo" pack. Almost missed my transit plane, totally engrossed in the airport internet kiosk and underestimating the grandeur of airport space of Suvarmabhumi airport. . I have been to Bangkok airport on a few occasions but didn't know that it had expanded beyond imagination.The flight from "Phnom Penh"  has a arrival  on the domestic terminal and hence it was almost a one Km walk to the International terminal to board "Flight No TG-317"situated  in terminal E with just no airport staff for guidance, only graphic directions.After ages i put my strenuous exercises to good use, literally jogging with"Booze hand  luggage" towards "Gate- E".Inquired with a few airport staff  while on the run and at least got the "Running direction" right ! A joker would have marveled at my natural stupidity of being at the airport transit for approx 6 hours and yet missing the transit plane due to not finding the boarding terminal! It could have been good "HEADLINE NEWS" of stupidity and gross negligence.Luck and my stamina saved the day and  made it on time to the departure gate "E".
On"Flight No TG-317" in seat No 33A on the way to Mumbai.
                                                                                     Boarded the plane and sat on window seat "33 A". Dinner was lousy although the peg of complimentary whisky was great ! Watched parts  of my evergreen favourite classics   "One Flew over the Cuckoo's nest" and "The Great Gatsby" on the the in-flight video/music entertainment. Landed  at Mumbai on scheduled time and after the normal formalities boarded a paid taxi(Rs 410) and arrived home in Prabhadevi.