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Lonely Beach, Lazy Beach

Back to Thailand.  Since we had already spent a few weeks in northern Thailand when we first came to Southeast Asia, and our flight back to the States was leaving from Bangkok, we planned to spend the remainder of our weeks abroad in the south of Thailand along the coast and on some islands.

Ko Chang PO box

We decided to start at Koh Chang, mostly because we were leaving Cambodia via the border crossing west of Siem Reap and we could go there directly without having to go all the way back to Bangkok to connect to other transportation.  From Siem Reap, it was a two hour minibus ride to the border town of Poipet, three hours waiting in line at the border, another six hours in a minibus crammed to the max with bodies and luggage, and an hour ferry ride.  The ferry ride was actually not what we had in mind; we wanted to spend the night in Trat and then take the ferry over to the island in the morning.  But as we approached the outskirts of Trat, our driver announced that he wasn’t stopping because if he did, the rest of the passengers would miss the last ferry to the island.   So on we went.

It was dark by the time we got to Koh Chang, and about 20 of us crammed in the back of a waiting songthaew.  The overloaded truck careened around the steep and winding jungle road that skirted the coast and somehow none bags fell off the top.  Since it was late and we didn’t have reservations, we decided to try to find a place in White Sand Beach, one of the main tourist areas.  We spent an exhausting hour wandering up and down the strip looking for a guesthouse that had rooms we would afford and… well, vacancies.  We walked past bars pumping loud music to solo white male patrons who were flanked by local girls in tight dresses and heavy makeup.

Eventually, we settled for a place a bit out of our price range that was set further back the trees.  We woke up the next morning, paid for an additional night, rented a motorbike and went in search of a cheap little bungalow far away from the lights and vibe of White Sand Beach.

Almost as soon as we took off, it started to rain.  Just a little cloudburst, but enough that the steep hills and hairpin turns might as well have been coated in ice.  After seeing the intense concentration on the local drivers’ faces and witnessing two motorbike accidents happen right in front of us, Tony decided to pull over and wait for the pavement to dry.  As we sat on the side of the road, a Russian couple slid into a slow-mo crash right next to us.  They decided to clean up their bleeding scrapes and wait it out, too.

Biking caution sign

Slick hill

After less than an hour, the roads were dry again and we were on our way.  For the next several days, we ended up trying out a few different bungalows on different beaches and exploring different areas around Koh Chang.  Tony piloted us all over the island and kept us upright at all times, even when we had both of our bags on board.

Sand road through the palms

Bang Bao pier

Lucky charm belt

National park rules

ATM truck

Klong Kloi bungalow

We eventually settled in at Lonely Beach in a row of cheapie bungalows with cold water showers and a bucket-flush toilet.  They weren’t the most picturesque and the bars next door were noisy all night but we liked the Thai staff and the food at the attached cafe.

Shoes parking

And the hammock.  The hammock was good.

Tony in the hammock

Alicia in hammock

Cafe poetry

Cafe dog

Cafe del Sunshine

Kitty

Lonely Beach

Lonely Beach swing

We borrowed a big woven mat from the cafe and spent long afternoons at the beach.  The water was as warm as the air and we were well aware of how lucky we were to be on a beach in the middle of February.  Our biggest problem was that the masks and snorkels we were renting for $1 were a little leaky and the blues bar next door was just as loud in our bungalow as when we visited in person.

Alicia at SF

Dog on stage

It is done

After much discussion over what island we should go to for the rest of the month, and what was going to be different there than laying in hammocks and drinking coconut shakes and picking up seashells, we decided we were done.  We didn’t need any more beach.  We already had that a few weeks prior in Cambodia, and we had our fill here.  We sent some emails and headed back to the mainland with a plan.  And the oldest, rustiest ferry we had ever seen carried us back.

Alicia on the ferry

Rusty ferry

01
Jun 2013
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Thailand

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Deserted Beaches and Cham Towers in Quy Nhon

After biking around Hoi An for a few days, we realized that it was nearly mid-January and we still hadn’t seen much of the sun since the day after Christmas. It was getting warmer as we traveled down the coast of Vietnam, but the skies were continually dark and the waves were rough. Probably to be expected since it was typhoon season in that part of the country. Nothing to do about it but keep on moving south.

Since we enjoyed being one of only a few Westerners that we saw back in Da Nang (one day we counted only five) and since we liked the atmosphere that those types of cities bring, we looked for a city on the coast that had good beaches but was smaller than Da Nang.  Quy Nhon looked about right, so we bought our bus tickets.

Here’s what Quy Nhon’s beach looked like on the Saturday afternoon that we arrived.

Deserted beach

Sunbathing isn’t exactly a national pastime here.

Rough waves

Just like the rest of the beaches we had seen in the past week, the water was too rough to swim. But that was just fine because we now had blue skies and THE SUN.

One evening while walking along the beach, we had a very nice (if lengthy) conversation with a local man who wanted to practice his English with us. Every question had the same formal preface.

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about education in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about the economy in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about guns in your country? Many people have been shot?”

Whoa. Those were some pretty broad and deep questions, but we worked our way through them to the best of our abilities.

Besides enjoying what was essentially our own private beach, we entertained ourselves in the evenings by walking through a night market. Western Christmas carols blared on the sound system and there were some mini carnival rides for little kids. Tony looked for a new pair of flip flops, but if you’re over size 42 (U.S. size 8.5), you are out of luck.

Reindeer spaceman ride

Paddleboats for babies

Carousel swing ride

One day, we rented a moped from our guesthouse and drove it out to see some partially restored 11th and 12th century Cham towers. Two towers were in town and the others were about 10 miles away.

Alicia on the moped

Thap Doy towers

Carving detail

Facade

Interior

Interior altar

Cham towers sunflare

Bahn It tower

Two towers on a hill

Bahn It

The groundskeeper called out to us and asked for 20,000 dong. Despite the official-looking ID hanging from his neck, we were skeptical, but he produced a booklet of tickets. We noticed that the price printed on them was only 7,000 dong and he reluctantly accepted that amount instead. Although he was being dishonest, we later felt badly that we had not simply paid what was the equivalent of an extra $1.20. He probably needed it much more than we did. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t clear.

Groundskeeper

Bahn It facade

Bahn It facade

Lower carvings

side detail

Tower further down the hill

Silhouette

View from the top

From our vantage point on top of the hill, we spotted what looked like an interesting pagoda nearby and decided to check it out. We never figured out its name, but it looked like it was either under renovation or its construction had begun and stopped a few decades ago and is only now starting up again.

Stairway to Buddha

Buddha

Dragon

Pagoda tower

Top of pagoda tower

We started to wonder where we should go next. South, obviously, but how far? Our guesthouse had a binder full of local information and something interesting caught our eye…

21
Feb 2013
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Vietnam

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Finding Nirvana in the Marble Mountains

Hoping to escape the chill and drizzle of Ninh Binh, we took a slow 14 hour train ride south to Da Nang.  The overnight sleeper was booked, but we could have a whole private compartment to ourselves on the 8 a.m. train. Since we had plenty of time, it was no problem to spend an entire day reading, playing solitaire and watching the world go by.  That is one of the benefits of long-term travel.  What would be totally unacceptable on a one or two week vacation is no problem when you have months and months to work with.

Tony relaxing in the train

Scenery north of Le Son

Karst mountains north of Le Son

River north of Le Son

Old homes along the tracks north of Le Son

Alicia playing solitaire

Da Nang was definitely warmer than Ninh Binh, but had even more clouds, wind and drizzle.  Red flags were posted on China Beach, but we saw one lone surfer hanging out past the breaks.

View of Da Nang from our hotel room

Blustery day at the beach

Red flag warning - no swimming today

White statue in the distance

Da Nang was really spread out and divided by a big river. Our hotel wasn’t particularly close to many food options, and we were curious about the big white statue across the bay. Time to rent another motorbike!

On the motorbike

Da Nang residential alley

Coast road

Boats being repaired

Bridge construction

View of Da Nang

We drove the coast road towards the big white statue until we came to Linh Ung Pagoda and the 17 story Bodhisattva of Mercy Statue that overlooks the South China Sea. The pagoda and grounds looked recently restored and  were full of and impressive bonsai trees and marble statuary.

Linh Ung pagoda stairs

Linh Ung pagoda

Linh Ung pagoda grounds

Dog friend at Linh Ung pagoda

Marble statue

Marble statue - with deer

Statue carvers

Wood carving tools

Buddha and Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

Dragon carving

Carvings at base of Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

The next day we drove south of town to the Marble Mountains. They are named well, because they are indeed full of marble and the base of the mountains are ringed by family businesses that create and sell huge marble sculptures.  Each mountain is zig-zagged with footpaths that take you to pagodas, caves and shrines. The air is saturated with the smell of spicy, burning joss sticks.

Lion of concrete and glass bottles at Linh Ung Pagoda

Dinnerware lion

Tang Chon Cave

Tang Chon Cave

Pagoda tower

Van Thong Cave

Steep stairs up Thuy Son Mountain

View from the top of Thuy Son Mountain

Moc Son Mountain center, Kim Son Mountain right, as seen from Thuy Son Mountain

Us at the top

Entrance to Hoa Nghiem and Huyen Khong caves

Inscription in Hoa Nghiem Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Huge buddha statue in Huyen Khong Cave

Natural skylights in Huyen Khong Cave

Carved lotus

Mini pagoda

Tho Son Mountain

Kim Son Mountain

One of the largest caves is Âm Phủ. Google Translate helpfully gives four different translations: Abaddon, infernal, hades and hell. Enter past the guardians and over a bridge with stone hands emerging from the stagnant water. Pass in front of the Dharmacakra, or Buddhist Wheel of Life, weigh your life on the scales and be judged in front of an all-seeing eye. Then descend to hell or take the stairway to heaven. (We’re sure there is much more to the symbolism and imagery than just that, so we apologize for the oversimplification.)

Guardian at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Creepy hands at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Carving at Am Phu Cave

Guardian of the

the Dharmacakra

Carving in front of the Dharmacakra

Judgement hall

Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way, shall we? First, to hell with us!

A demon on the way to hell

Hungry creature

More demons

A lost soul

Ksitigarbha ministers to lost souls

At the bottom of hell

Once you’ve reached the bottom, there’s no where to go but retrace your steps and go up.  It’s steep and there are no handrails.


Stairway to heaven

Sculpture collection on the ascent to heaven

Marble relief carving

Carved dog

Sleeping elephant

Small seated Buddhas

Cat angel relief sculpture

Looking back down

Looking back down

Pagoda tower

Carvings at the top of

Nirvana, at last.


20
Feb 2013
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A River, a Pagoda and Karst Mountains in Ninh Binh

So we skipped Ha Long Bay.  Skipping Ha Long Bay when you have a month to see Vietnam is probably the equivalent of going to Paris for a week without ever setting eyes on the Eiffel Tower or something, but we gave it a pass anyway.  It was cold and drizzly and a long boat trip just didn’t sound like fun.  Instead, we took the train few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which is supposed to be the inland equivalent of the Ha Long landscape.

When we woke up in Ninh Binh, we fortified ourselves with a massive jolt of caffeine and sugar via Vietnamese coffee at the cafe next door, while enjoying a very strange TV program.

Vietnamese coffee

Many (if not most) cafes in Vietnam also serve as the owners’ homes, which is why it looks like we’re hanging out in someone’s living room.

TV program

Remembering our great times in northern Thailand on a motorbike, we decided to rent one from our hotel instead of getting a taxi.  It was actually just a spare bike owned by the woman next door, who sloshed a Pepsi bottle full of gasoline into the tank and pointed us in the direction of the nearest petrol station.

It was cold and the road was full of deep potholes. Parts of it were under construction and there were lots of heavy trucks on the road which added a challenging element to the usual traffic patterns (marked lanes merely a suggestion, two way traffic in both lanes and shoulders, turn signals and mirrors irrelevant, right of way belongs to the biggest vehicle and/or whoever begins honking first and loudest, etc.). We quickly learned the difference between the normal “hey guys, coming through” courtesy honks and the urgent blasts that screamed “you are about to die, fool!”

Railroad safety gate

When we finally found Tam Cốc (which means “three caves”) after some backtracking, our nerves were a little on edge and our fingers were stiff with cold.  We bought a boat ticket down the Ngô Đồng river, and it wound through some amazing karst scenery and caves. Our rower used her feet the whole time and sometimes talked on her cellphone.  Most of the other rowers we passed used their feet, too.

Our boat rower

Woman rowing with her feet

First cave

Us

Boat approaching the first cave

Cave interior

Kingfisher

Cultivated river bank

A dog and a house

Through the second cave

Other tourists being rowed by foot

Vietnamese women fishing

Through the cave

Large white bird

Vertical face

At the turnaround point, we managed to resist the concession stand flotilla ladies who tried to sell us drinks and snacks.

High-pressure concession flotilla

Back on shore and tip delivered, we headed for the nearest cafe to thaw out.

After we recovered, we got back on the bike and motored just up the road a bit to Bích Động pagoda, which is a temple complex of three different pagodas set up the side of a mountain.

Tony at the entrance to Bích Động pagoda

This place is not for impolite visitors

Corner of a roof

Mossy roof tiles

Glowing altar

Dragon painting

Buddhas

Alicia taking a group photo

Small shrine

Bare frangipani trees

After reaching the final pagoda, a path continued up the mountain and we followed it through jagged karst and over boulders and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Jagged rocks on top of the mountain

Our feet in sharp rocks

Us at the top

Flooded fields below

But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have much daylight left to get back to town, so we hurried down.

Hurrying down

A huge flock of large white birds were restlessly settling in the marsh as we walked back to our motorbike.

Flock landing

We pulled off the road to take a few last photos before the cold ride home.

Tony on the bike

Ninjas!

The area around Ninh Binh was beautiful, but we craved warmth.  We also missed the sun, which we hadn’t seen since we left Laos two weeks prior.  Although we usually stay for several days in each area we visit, we bought train tickets south that night and left first thing in the morning.

Train ticket

Ninh Binh train station

19
Feb 2013
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Vietnam

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