7 days backpacking trip with my friends

Traveling with my old good friends is to me one of the healthiest and most positive things I can do to strengthen our friendship.

Angkor Thom

I was chuffed to bits that my friends who I hadn’t seen for so many years visited me and my family in the Penh. I was also grateful that my boys gave me some time to join backpacking trip with them!

Bayon Temple [Thanks to my friend Gb for taking this photo]

Our 7 days backpacking trip provided us the opportunity

  1. to develop a deeper bond and to get to know each other more. Those fun, crazy, and stressful situations helped me get to know them even better. Even though we have known each other for a long time, traveling together allow us to deepen our friendship in ways neither of us expected.
  2. to make lifelong memories and mutual experience to savor together. These shared stories would be things that we can reminisce about forever especially since we haven’t lived near enough to each other to have many common experiences in recent years. Personally, these shared travel stories become really, really important.
  3. to break the ice when the 4 of us meet new people on the road and these travel stories bring about some genuine laughs.

with my good friends at the Angkor Wat

Also, one of the best parts of our trip was the planning stage. We didn’t tire of our endless travel chat and it was perfectly acceptable when Ga messaged us at midnight with all her urgent and essential questions like which hotel we were going to book, flight changes, which clothes to bring, or simply talking about all the amazing places we wanted to visit together – got all of us super excited for the adventures

Ta Prohm [Thanks to Carl for this photo]

My friends and I backpacked from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Phnom Penh City, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and then back to Phnom Penh for 7 days. And since it was my first backpacking trip with them, I decided to share our awesome memories together.

with my friends in Angkor

Wander the wonder of the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap

Wandering the wonder of the Angkor Temples (one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia) with good old friends was just awesome. First we visited the amazing relic and extraordinary Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century and dubbed as the largest religious monument and one of the finest monument in the world. We spent a half-day exploring the Angkor Wat, and even though there were hordes of tourists at that time, the view was still breathtaking, and it was worth it.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Bas reliefs

After lunch, we headed to the most fascinating temple in Angkor – The Bayon Temple – where there were 200 plus gigantic mesmerizing faces adorn this incredible temple. Truly it’s the cheeriest of them all.

Bayon Temple

Then we continued to Ta Prohm Temple, a temple known for massive trees growing out its walls. This temple was also featured in a movie “Tomb Raider”and Indiana Jones movie. These giant trees appear to melt into the meticulously hewn stones, binding them together or tearing them apart in extraordinary fusion of nature and man is a juxtaposition of order and chaos. Indeed, Ta Prohm is a perfect harmony of nature and architecture.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm [Thanks Gb for this photo]

Chill at the PUB Street in Siem Reap

After temple trekking, we chilled at the PUB Street – a happy pedestrian with amazingly excellent vibe. It was a very lively place and there was so much fun and joys. We grabbed a bite at the Temple Restaurant. We had Cambodian soup and Tom Yum and it was good.

Temple Restaurant [Thanks to Carl for this photo]

PUB Street [Thanks to Carl for this photo]

Early morning splash in the pool

I love how we started our day – quick early morning splash in the pool at Naga Gate Hotel. To me, it was an easy way to get my exercise for the day and provide me some poolside relaxation. Plus, it was cool making the half-awake commute to the pool and getting into a completely still, flat, placid, calm and cold pool while the rest of the world was still asleep.

@ Naga Gate Hotel in Siem Reap [Thanks Gb for this photo]

Exploring the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh

When we were rested and refreshed, we explored the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. We went there at around 3.30pm, and I think it was the perfect time to visit the palace as there were only few tourist. We paid $10.25 for the entrance fee (which is quite expensive) and we stayed there for an hour. My friends were awed by the beautiful architecture and the magnificent collection of gold in the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace is certainly a place of history; and a worthy place to visit if you are in the city.

The Royal Palace

The Silver Pagoda

The Royal Palace

Strolling around the River and Lazying at Le Moon Sky Bar in Phnom Penh

From the palace, we strolled around the Riverside, a colourful place and a nice spot for tourists and Khmer people alike where you can enjoy a nice breeze and local activities – play different games, walk, and relax. It’s also a great place for everything – restaurants, bars, markets, Mekong boat cruise, and many more. After strolling, we lazed at the Le Moon Sky Bar while savoring tea and coffee and enjoying the commanding views and the open-air rooftop breeze.

Visit S-21 (Tuol Sleng) Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh

The Tuol Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing fields are the saddest places we’ve been to. Our tour there was very interactive and the audio guide provided us with very good information of the events – about 3 million Cambodians were tortured and killed by their own people. The recorded testimonies from the survivors and guards are very grounding. Such a harrowing and sad piece of history but a must go if you visit Cambodia and definitely worth having the audio too as it gives you a very descriptive and realistic outline of the two places! We spent about an hour in Tuol Sleng Museum and an hour and a half walking quietly in the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Choeung Ek Killing Field

Choeung Ek Killing Field

Choeung Ek Killing Field

Devour Vietnamese Street Food and walked around the walking street

One thing I love about Vietnam is their sooo delicious street food. After our tour at the Cu chi tunnels, we dropped off at the Ben Tanh Market to grab Vietnamese street food. It’s an ideal inexpensive spot selling many types of food and drink. The atmosphere there was relaxed. We especially enjoyed sitting the hustle and bustle. In the evening, we walked around the very lively Bu Vien walking street, a great street of bars, clubs and streetwise food. There were a lot of tourists and locals alike, jamming the road. We walked up and down the street and sampled some drinks and food as we went along. We sat into a few little local bars, devoured local tasty food while we watched the world went by. It was fun!

Vietnamese food

Vietnamese food. [Thanks to my friend Carl for this photo]

Bui Vien Walking Street

Bui Vien walking street [Thanks Ga for this photo]

Crawl at the Cu Chi Tunnel

We spent half day to visit the Cu Chi Tunnel. Our guide showed us how the Viet Cong outwitted the Americans at every step with their primitive but quite effective weapons. We learned how the Viet Cong and the local people constructed the tunnels, the infrastructures (hospitals, kitchen, conference room, etc) and the various traps – booby door trap, window, rolling, etc. Our guide also pointed out the bomb craters with collapsed tunnels entrance, the termite mounds covering the bamboo air tubes to the tunnels and the camouflage entrance to the tunnels with multiple firing positions. We also learned that the Viet Cong used sandals made out of used rubber (from an old motor bike or car tire) and cut out a foot print to trick the American soldiers as they thought that the trail of footprints they had picked up was heading one way but instead they were heading the opposite way. During the tour, we crawled 60 m out of 200 km tunnels – it was really an amazing experience! Can you imagine living in the tunnel for many years? Certainly our visit to the tunnels was a wonderful insight into life during the war in Vietnam.

Inside the tunnel. [Thanks Carl for this photo]

The rubber slippers used by the Vietcongs.

The rescue entrance

Shop in Ho Chi Minh

We went shopping at the Ben Tanh Market, one of the huge markets in Ho Chi Minh with a large range of products – food, bags, clothing, etc. It has a good atmosphere and good products. Just like in Cambodia’s markets, there is no fixed price in this market, so you need to learn how to bargain. If you are foreigner ask for 40-50% off when you bargain across the board. Overall, we had so much fun in the market especially when bargaining.

@ Ben Tanh market [Thanks Carl for this photo]

Meet my family in the Kingdom

My friends got to meet my family in the Penh for the first time. As a way of welcoming them into our simple abode, we offered them cooked meals. I’m grateful that my hubby cooked food (Gratin Dauphinois, Coq Au Vin, Cantonese Rice, toast salmon, etc.) for my friends. And on the last night (before they fly back home), we took them to one of our fave bistro in town to chill. For two nights, round the table with good food and a fine wine, we had one of the best and most fun discussions. Indeed, it was such a fun and great moment for all of us!

Fun Tuktuk ride

Tuktuk ride is one of the most common public transportation here, and it was one of the fun experiences we have had while showing some places in Cambodia to my friends. We took a tuktuk wherever we went. While riding a tuktuk, we felt alive in traffic from the fellow tuktuks, motorbikes and cars. It was fast, cheap, fun, we got “fresh air”, and we love the wind in our hair.

tuktuk ride

Enjoy the long bus ride

Even though there are local flights available from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh, we opted to travel by bus to see more of the countryside. We traveled with the Giant Ibis Bus Company and the ticket (one way) was $18 per person. From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we nearly missed our bus as we were 10 minutes late. Luckily, the staff was kind enough to wait for us. It took us about 6 hours to reach the capital city. On our way to Ho Chi Minh City from Phnom Penh, we missed our bus at 8.30AM. We tried to catch it but we couldn’t – it already went far, so we decided to go back to the bus station. Fortunately, there were still some seats available for the next bus trip at 12.30PM – we were relieved! We went to the bus the station 30 minutes early before the departing time to make sure we wouldn’t miss it again. The entire bus trip was good and comfortable. The bus provided us a wet tissue, and small snacks (savory bread and a small bottle of water). There was wifi and there were outlets on every row. The bus stopped 3 times (1 stop for lunch and 2 stops for toilet). The road occasionally took us to the river, we saw stilt houses, small children walking on the road from school and we past beautiful scenery of rice paddies. We saw the countryside – poor but beautiful. Indeed, the 22 hours bus trip (6 hours SR to PP, 8 hours PP to HCM and 8 hours HCM to PP) was a nice journey, and no such thing as dead time.

Bus ride to Ho Chi Minh from Phnom Penh [Thanks Carl for this photo]

Bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap [Thanks Carl for this photo]

Certainly, traveling with these 4 good friends was awesome as they augmented the epic-ness of the adventure.

 

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Vietnam: Beautiful Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh

We had never heard of Cao Dai Temple until we bought our tour tickets to Cu Chi Tunnels. So we goggle searched it right away and when we looked at the pictures we became curious and decided to visit the place. Personally, this is one of the reasons why I love traveling – I get to discover cultures and customs that are so different from what I accustomed to.

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Daiism is a relatively recent religion that is unique to Vietnam as it is a new fusion religion combining other religious groups including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. It focuses on moral and ethical practices such as prayer, nonviolence, honoring of forefathers, etc. I have also learned that  Victor Hugo (a French writer), Confucius, Joan of Arc, and Sun Yat-Sen (the Chinese republican hero from 20th century) are among their revered saints.

Inside Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Temple

This Cao Dai Temple is located 90 km away from Ho Chi Minh City (about 2 hours by bus from the city centre), in a typical Vietnamese provincial city, Tay Ninh. Cao Daiism was founded in 1926 in Vietnam and has about 6 million followers.

Beautiful garden.

One of the statues in the garden.

We arrived in the place just in time to witness and enjoy the main service at midday. The temple is amazing. We stood on the balcony on the 2nd floor and looked at the service from above since only priests and pilgrims (majority were elderly people) were allowed in the service area. I noticed that Cao Dai priests wore a robe in three principal colors of Cao Dai: Red for Christianity, Blue for Taoism and Yellow for Buddhism while the pilgrims wore white. Indeed, the ceremony was nice to see.

Cao Dai service at midday

Furthermore, I loved the bright lively colors of the Temple’s exterior and especially the extravagantly decorated interior. I like the symbols, images of saints and abstract designs. The floor tiles have busy patterns and the high ceiling is painted sky-blue. I have learned that their most important symbol is the Divine Eye, which represents that God witnesses everything everywhere.

Divine Eye, the most important symbol of Cao Daiism.

Divine Eye, the most important symbol of Cao Daiism.

Divine Eye, the most important symbol of Cao Daiism.

This lavish and spectacular temple of Cao Dai Religion attracts thousands of pilgrims, believers, and tourists who come to experience this wonderful service and interiors. Certainly, it was an awesome visit and well worth the journey.

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Temple

Little Lilly travel tip:

  • The visitors are asked to come modestly dressed.

Have you been to Cao Dai Temple? What did you like best there?

Vietnam: 6 Reasons to Visit the Old Quarter in Hanoi

The Old Quarter area is the oldest area in Hanoi. It the city’s economic center and main tourist destination. It is in the heart of everything – history, architecture, old buildings, tourist attractions, shopping malls, sightseeing venues, hotels, restaurants, markets (night market and regular market), parks, and many more. Without the Old Quarter area, Hanoi wouldn’t be the same.

oq19

Interesting place with lots to look at and eat

Here are 6 reasons on why experiencing and exploring the historical Old Quarter area in Hanoi is a must-do and truly well worth it:

1.Many major attractionsMost of the major attractions in Hanoi are located within or nearby the Old Quarter area. This includes the elaborate French colonial buildings, beautiful architecture like overhanging bay windows and a high sloping roof,  Hoan Kiem Lake, St Joseph’s Cathedral, National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ba Dinh Square, the one Pillar Pagoda, Buddhist and Daoist Temples (e.g. Bach Ma Temple), shopping malls, markets, Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, and many more.

The Opera House in Hanoi

While strolling around the quarter, we found interesting classic Old Quarter Tube Houses. It’s called a tube house because it’s a house that looks like a long narrow tube of space divided into many sections. I have learned that up until today, many Vietnamese prefer to build a tube house so they would pay less taxes. There also several communal houses that have been existing for hundreds of years. These were established to serve as places for the community and help plan the socio-economic development and other activities of the communities. I noticed that the more time we spent in the Old Hanoi, the more adept we got at discovering the old buildings among the new ones.

Tube houses

2.ActivitiesWhile exploring the city, I realized that there are two must-do activities at the Old Quarter. First, wander around the place. We spent most of our time walking around and we felt a unique vibe and energy there that dates back to the 13th century.Second, try their local tea or coffee while sitting right on the sidewalk. I found it to be the best place to observe how the world go by in the quarter. Moreover, there are many culinary classes in the area: if you love cooking and Vietnamese food, this is an ideal place where to learn.

Tea time 🙂

3.ShoppingUndeniably, the Old Quarter is a shopper’s delight. There are so many different shops around the area – high-end shops, boutiques, Dong Son (the largest market in the city), night market, etc. The shops offer lovely artistic products from around the country, designed by many top craftsmen and artists. There, you can easily find many popular souvenir items such as silk products, embroidered fabrics and bags, conical hats, lacquer ware, coffee beans, paintings and many more. When shopping, don’t forget to wear your smile while bargaining. One thing I have learned about shopping there is that one shouldn’t be shy while negotiating the price because the sellers expect their customers to do so.

I love their lacquer ware and embroidered quilts. Brought some of those products home.

Streets of shopping

4.FoodI love Vietnamese cuisine! My favorite ones are pho rice noodles and cha ca. I also like banh goi. It’s luscious! In addition to their great food, you can find French baguettes and coffee everywhere – locals love it and I love it too! 🙂 I also love their super delicious street food without getting sick. Furthermore, I have also noticed that when dusk comes, lots of people sit on the incredibly tiny chairs on the sidewalks while eating, enjoying themselves and socializing with others. I love this great idea! Since we tried both their high-end restaurants and streets stalls, I would say that the food choices in the Old Quarter is good and the dishes come at cheap to affordable prices no matter where you prefer to dine.

Enjoying my meal

5.NightlifeThe Old Quarter area is a very lively place, 24/7. Live music, discos, clubs, bars, and decent karaoke – name it you can find it all there.  It seems like it is where the night owls head to as it keeps people from all walks of life happy.

oq34

Charming chaos

6.Life on the streetsThe life on the street and the Zen of negotiating the traffic is the heart of the Old Quarter. Jillion of scooters, bicycles and cars fill the streets of the quarter and flock around the pedestrian crossings. The motorists honk all the time making it quite tricky and scary to cross the streets. However, I found it fascinating to watch Vietnamese people slipping through the traffic smoothly and calmly – wait for the right moment, no brusque/rough action, keep moving. In spite of the so busy place, a walk through the quarter gave us a good flavor of Hanoi which has a distinct French feel with an Asian touch. In fact to me, getting lost on its streets that look like a maze of chaotic branches was fun and one of the biggest delight we enjoyed in the city.

A place full of life

Overall, it was such a pleasure to be in a place with old buildings with much French influence that has real appeal. It is indeed a fascinating place for all kinds of travelers even with or without a family.

What did you like best about the Old Quarter? 

Vietnam: National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi

I enjoy visiting museums. Artifacts in a museum bring a tangible, interactive and exciting history into my life.

Good starting point to be familiar with the Vietnam history.

Sometimes, when we visit a museum, we take a guided tour or audio guides, but when we visited the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi, we decided to just wander around at our own pace. This modern museum houses the finest collection of artifacts from the country’s ancient and more recent history. I saw different costumes and other pieces from Vietnam’s royal dynasties and the most far-reaching one is from the Nguyen Dynasty (last royal dynasty) which ended in 1945.

interesting exhibition

M19

Good amount of historical relics were displayed in the museum.

Another highlight in this museum is the collection of Dong Son drums that come from central Vietnam’s Cham Kingdom. I have learned that the Bronze Age Dong Son civilization developed in a province not far from Hanoi called Thanh Hoa from around 1200BC for 1000 years. These stunning drums are frequently used as a contemporary symbol of Vietnamese culture and civilization as they portray Vietnamese life.

Dong Son drums

Moreover, this museum contains a lot of information about the different ethnic groups in Vietnam. It also has information regarding the evolution of the country’s history from Neanderthals through the different dynasties.

beautiful antiques

I enjoyed staring at each display 🙂

We spent about an hour wandering inside the museum. What I have seen was far more than I expected. The museum itself is in a fabulous French colonial building which is in itself a beauty to see. The ceramics, the iron works, the bronzes, etc all added up to an unexpected visual experiences. Undeniably, I was amazed by the museum’s impressive collection of historical relics and refreshingly modernized presentation.

wonderful French colonial building

Little Lilly travel tip:

  • Take a good guide if you wish to visit the Vietnam National Museum of History since some exhibits lack detailed information in English.

 

 

 

Vietnam: The Charming One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi

I like the City of Hanoi. There are many interesting places to see within the city and if you stay for only a few days, it’s quite tricky to decide which place to visit.

Besides the pagoda.

One of the places we visited in Hanoi was the One Pillar Pagoda. This Buddhist temple is also known as Chua Mot Cot, which means long lasting happiness and good luck. It was built in 1049, standing on its one pillar until 1954 when the French blew it up in anger because they were being thrown out of Vietnam as colonial masters. Since then, they have rebuilt it and locals and tourists alike can visit it again.

The One Pillar Pagoda

According to the legend, there was an ageing Emperor named Ly Thai Long, who ruled Vietnam from 1028 to 1054. He used to go to the pagoda to pray to Buddha for a son. One night, he dreamt that Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who was standing on a great lotus flower, gave him a baby boy. Later, his wife gave birth to a male child. In gratitude for this, the Emperor ordered the construction of a pagoda which is only supported by only one pillar to resemble the lotus seat of his dream.

People are queuing to go up the pagoda.

While visiting the place, I have learned that many young Vietnamese couples who wanted to have children go there and visit the goddess with the hundred arms inside the temple as it’s believed that she can help young couples to have a child.

Inside the pagoda.

The One Pillar Pagoda is just small, but it has a unique design. It’s cute and it looks good on photo. There’s also a nice park around where you can relax for a while and hide from the sun. Even though it was just a quick tour, overrun by hordes of tourists, I think it’s worth seeing. Certainly, we enjoyed our visit there.

It was a nice relaxing tour.

Little Lilly travel tip:

  • If you wish to visit the One Pillar Pagoda, combine it with the other attractions nearby such as Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Presidential Palace, etc. since all of which are just around the corner.

What can you say about the One Pillar Pagoda?  

 

 

 

Vietnam: Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

One of the places I like in Hanoi is the charming Hoan Kiem Lake, which is also known as the Lake of the Returned Sword or Lake of the Restored Sword. It’s one of the landmark in the Old Quarter area, one of the main picturesque and breathtaking spots in the city, and it serves as a central point for the area’s public life.

Turtle Tower in the center of the lake

Turtle Tower

The lake is not only special in its history but also in its features. I have learned that the water color of Hoan Kiem Lake is greenish with dark or light shade depending on the reflection of the sky and it’s full of tortoise, which makes it different from the other lakes elsewhere in the Vietnam.

popular breezy spot

Turtle Tower at night

We stayed 5 days in Hanoi, and 3 out of 5 days we went to the lake. We went there during the day, early in the morning and then again at night when it’s all lit up. As we walked by, we witnessed the pace of life in this peculiar city, we saw people jogging, reading, enjoying time with family, children and dogs running around, and hug and kiss events…lol. After strolling around the city at daytime, we had a pleasant break sitting near the lake and had some ice cream. At nighttime, we sat on one of the benches there, enjoyed the scenic views while having some beer. It’s quite tranquil.

lovely place surrounded by the beautiful lake

very nice view; good backdrop for selfies and groufies,

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

I like Hoan Kiem Lake because the place is relaxing and it offers gentle breeze even on the hottest day. It’s a lovely scenery during by day and by night, situated in a lively area in Hanoi.  The more we spent time in the lake, the more special it became. Indeed, it’s well worth a visit!

perfect place for evening stroll and people watching

What did you like about Hoan Kiem Lake?

 

 

 

 

Vietnam: Hang Sung Sot Cave in Ha Long Bay

One of the activities I enjoy doing is caving. So, I was enthusiastic when I learned that exploring several caves in Ha Long Bay was included in our cruise itinerary.

Beautiful Sung Sot Cave.

Strange color mix.

Hang Sung Sot Cave is situated at the centre of Ha Long Bay which is one of the World 7 Wonders of Nature and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the most beautiful and largest caves in Ha Long Bay, covering an area of about 10,000 square meters at an altitude of about 30 meters.

Caves of surprises.

View from the cave.

Hang Sung Sot Cave is also known as the Surprising Cave. It is the most famous cave to visit in Ha Long Bay and it is dubbed as an “opera house” because of the beauty of its thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. I have learned that it has been voted as one of the 10 most beautiful caves in the world by the Association of Tourism Offices and Brokers of the Czech Republic.

Natural wonder!

On the way up.

As soon as we arrived at the base of the cave, we slowly ascended about 150 steep stone steps to reach the entrance of the cave. It was so crowded! When we went in, it looked small but as we moved in, we didn’t feel so crowded anymore as it was huge, well lit and paved.

Limestone cave at Ha Long Bay.

This naturally carved cave is enormous! In fact, I was pretty impressed at the size. I have visited caves in the Philippines and a few other countries, but nothing compares to the sheer size of this one. We were told by our guide that hundreds of troops use to seek refuge in them during the war.

Some rock formations.

The ceiling.

This colossal cave has two chambers. It looks like a theater hall as it features different unusual rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. While we were walking, our guide told us stories about the cave and he also pointed to certain shapes in the cave and how it resembled certain animal, human parts, etc. The coloured lights that they played in it helped us give to get a sense of depth that white light only wouldn’t, plus it gave us good moment to capture good pictures on our camera.

It’s gigantic!

Another stunning view from the cave.

Besides amazing size and marvelous rock formations, the view from the cave is fabulous, overlooking Ha Long Bay and the boats.

Gaping at the natural wonders.

I certainly enjoyed the trek inside the cave. I enjoyed the magnificent views and the various rock formations of stalagmites and stalactites.

Little Lilly travel tip:

  • The climb is quite steep and can be precarious for the older people especially if they are not steady or have difficulty walking.
  • Wear good walking shoes.
  • Move at your own pace and don’t rush to keep up with the others.