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Thursday, February 28, 2013

The True Wild at Kaziranga

It is that time of the year when the airlines have started dropping their prices, employees in various organizations are working hard to meet their financial year end needs, students are preparing hard for their upcoming examinations and the temperatures in India have started rising. All these factors make it an ideal time to pack your bags and go on a wildlife holiday.

Rhino (Front and Back)
Well, if you are wondering how it benefits you, think on these lines. You can book your tickets within short notice as demand is lesser and costs are low. Accommodation would be easy to get and again discounts will be available. If you are a wildlife enthusiast, you will appreciate the fact that there are less tourists and thus you have the special wildlife moments completely to yourself. And finally, the increasing ground temperatures ensure that your wildlife sightings are better owing to bleaker and dry foliage and reduction in water body size.

Wild Buffalo stares at us while attempting to cross the jeep track
Keeping the above in mind, I personally think Kaziranga National Park in Assam would make for a fantastic wildlife holiday destination. To start with, it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It hosts the special one-horned rhinoceros, large herds of elephants, the massive wild water buffalo, the tiger and the leopard, the barasingha (swamp deer) and a rich variety of birds that includes a lot of raptors.

Kaziranga Wild Elephant Series
And in addition to the above, Kaziranga is located in North East India, giving you a different cultural experience. If you wish to do more wildlife, you can visit the Nameri National Park or the Hoolongopar Gibbon sanctuary close by. If nature appeals to you, you can plan a trip to Majuli island on the mighty Brahmaputra. If you feel you need to relax, you can look at the tea estates of Jorhat. And if you like history, you can look at Sibsagar.

The Rhino checks out the intruders
And all this is only if you want to take a break from wildlife. If you are the kind who doesn’t get bored with national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife and birds, then Kaziranga can easily host you for a week if not more. You can stay at a wildlife enthusiast place like the Wild Grass Resort to ensure you get great knowledgeable wildlife guides and liked minded people for company.

The proud antlers of this Male Swamp Deer (Barasingha)
If you want to make use of this opportune time, plan your true wild Kaziranga experience by booking your airline tickets quickly. A host of flight operators like Jet Airways, Air India Express and others connect Guwahati with the rest of India. Kaziranga is about 250 kilometers from Guwahati and one can take the regular buses or hire a private taxi to make this short journey.

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Hoi An: History, Beaches, Riverside, Rich Culture, Relaxed Atmosphere and Great Shopping

Hoi An is often dubbed as the best shopping destination of Vietnam. It definitely stands up to this tag, but it is not just shopping that draws hoards of tourists here. The old quarter of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to be a thriving South East Asian trading port between the 15th and the 19th century. Then there are the beautiful beaches located a short ride away and the white coral islands about a 30 minute boat ride away. Then, there is the relaxed atmosphere of the ancient town with its river side, good night life and museums.

The Hoi An Old Town View
Hoi An, located about 35 kilometers south of Danang in Central Vietnam was a port and trading center of the local Sa Huynh people along the Thu Bon river as early as the 2nd century BC. This continued to expand, and by the 15th century, Hoi An was already the most important port of the powerful Champa kingdom. It continued after the Vietnamese absorption of the Champa kingdom in the same capacity, becoming one of the most important centers of mercantile, and hence cultural, exchange in South-East Asia.

Ancient House in Hoi An
It was through Hoi An that Christianity penetrated in the 17th century. It retained its role as the main port of the central region throughout the 19th century, when the Nguyen dynasty kings operated a ‘closed trade policy’. By the end of the century, the rise of other ports on the coast of Vietnam, in particular Da Nang, and silting of its harbor, led to the final eclipse of Hoi An. As a result of this economic stagnation, Hoi An has preserved its early appearance in a remarkably intact state.

Clothes and tailoring can be seen everywhere in Hoi An, Vietnam
In this intact state of Hoi An, one can see ancient houses, community houses, pagodas from the 19th century, a fine wooden bridge reminiscent of Japanese examples and many ancient tombs built in Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese styles. This architecture of Hoi An, which is built entirely of wood, if of considerable interest as it combines traditional Vietnamese designs and techniques with those from other countries, above all China and Japan, whose citizens settled there to trade and built houses and community centers to all their designs.

The famous covered Japanese Bridge of Hoi An's Old Quarter
This Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one has to pay USD 5 or 90,000 VND as entrance fee to enter the key buildings of interest. However, walking by these buildings and in the town is free of cost. Since Hoi An is a small town, it retains some of the original country side charm of Vietnam with its lively markets, busy river side business center, lush green paddy fields and a very easy lifestyle.

A Shoe Shop in the old quarter of Hoi An, Vietnam
In the last few decades from the time tourism really picked up here, the people of Hoi An have started renouncing traditional lifestyles to get into the tourism market. This has led to a whole bunch of shopping areas in Hoi An where one can buy all sorts of goods in Hoi An, especially clothes and shoes. The tailoring in Hoi An is supposed to be one of the best in Vietnam. A lot of tourists come here to get their suits done for a decent price, but more importantly within 24 hours. You will get a flavor of it as soon as you arrive in Hoi An as a lot of young to middle aged women will attempt to interact with you and then finally ask you if you are interested in getting some clothes custom fitted for you.

Sunset at the Hoi An Riverside
As a town, Hoi An is very small and hence most of its charms, restaurants, river sides and countryside can either be explored on foot (I prefer walking) or on a bicycle (this is the what a lot of tourists prefer). Hoi An is best explored on either of these two as it allows you to soak in the easy and yet very cultural side of Hoi An. It is also a good way of slowly exploring the entire old quarter of Hoi An, which turns into a no-vehicle zone in the evening.

Hoi An Riverside action
In terms of places to visit nearby, there are the Cua Dai and Aang Bang beaches. Cua Dai is more a local beach that is busy every evening, while the Aang Bang is slightly more quiet with great waters for swimming and a long beach for sun bathing. Then, there is the ‘Marble Mountains’ between Hoi An and Danang. The caves systems, the line of marble shops selling up to 50 tons of carved marble and the aerial views of the azure coastline are the highlights of the ‘Marble Mountains’.

Old Women make a living by rowing boats at Hoi An
On the other side of Hoi An is the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Hindu kingdom of My Son that was the headquarters of the Champa kingdom in the 8th century. Today, the place exists in ruins (thanks to the bombings during the Vietnam-America war), but the ruins located within thick forests has a lot of archaeological importance as this is where an entire Hindu empire used to prosper. It also depicts the power India used to have in those times.

Boats at Hoi An's riverside ready to take you on a cruise
Apart from these places of interest, Hoi An has a long river system, waves of green rice paddies, beautiful country side life, swaying coconut palms and more that can be explored at leisure. The town has enough in it to keep you interested at least for a week if not more. I stayed here for 1 week and wished I could stay longer. May be, I will go fulfill that dream by returning here some time soon and stay longer.

Lush Green Hoi An, Vietnam
If you love shopping, I doubt you will ever get time to explore places around Hoi An. Such is the depth of street shopping here. You might find the fancy bags and the designer labels, but Hoi An has its own sweet way of keeping the female mind very interested.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Entering Hong Kong? Show your professional camera!!

I have shown flight tickets, hotel booking vouchers, bank statements, money, business cards, invite letters, income tax returns and even office ID cards to get a visa or an immigration stamp. After all, the Indian passport does not have the perks of some of the other passports of the world and hence the immigration or the visa consulate have to take additional precautions. But, today, when I was at the immigration counter at the Hong Kong International airport, I was asked for my camera. Here’s how the interaction goes. It is interesting and hence I am putting down the entire conversation for you.

Background: I have booked a room in a house located in Hong Kong’s residential area (Lam Tei) through Airbnb and hence am not staying at one of the hotels in Hong Kong like the other tourists who come here. Hence, my arrival form mentions this residential address.

Immigration Official : IO
Sankara: ME

IO: Why are you staying in Lam Tei?
ME: What?

IO: Who lives in the Lam Tei address?
ME: The owner of the house?

IO: Why are you staying there?
ME: I rented a room in that house through Airbnb.

IO: Doesn’t seem to make the connection. Ponders for a while and then asks “How long is your stay here?”
ME: 13 days

IO: Show me your return flight tickets.
ME: I show my return flight tickets to Hanoi, Vietnam.

IO: What is your purpose of visit here?
ME: Tourism.

IO: What do you do in India?
ME: I am a travel writer and photographer.

IO: What?
ME: Yes, travel writer and photographer.

IO: Can you show me your ID or business card?
ME: I showed him my business card.

IO: Show me your camera.
ME: This brought a big smile to my face and I showed him my big camera.

This finally seemed to appease his doubts and my passport was stamped for 14 days of stay in Hong Kong. When everything failed, my camera helped me get entry into Hong Kong. I am still smiling as I am unable to get the interaction with the immigration officer out of my head. The moment was so funny that the typical poker face immigration officer also broke into a smile when he saw me smiling and showing him my camera.

The next time when you travel to Hong Kong on an Indian passport, try to carry your camera and ensure you get entry Smile.

P.S. Please do not take the last sentence seriously.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Travel Photo: A Cave River, Rice Paddies and Limestone Mountains

This sight is supposed to be one of Vietnam’s best sights and is said to come just a little behind the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay. The view is very simple. There is a lazy river that meanders through ageless caves, locals grow rice next to the shallow banks of this river and this river is protected on either side by mighty ranges of limestone karsts that project eerily everywhere.

View from Hang Mua, Vietnam
This view can be seen at Ninh Binh’s Tam Coc and Hang Mua. Tam Coc allows you to feel the experience while sitting on a bot slowly paddling through the river, while Hang Mua or Mua Cave ensures that its steep 500 steps give you a bird’s eye view of this sensational natural wonder. The only sad part when I was here a couple of days back was that there was hardly any sun and in spite of that, I adored the view. Just imagine, how much better the view would be when the colors get glorified by the sun’s rays.

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Hue Backpackers Hostel: Don’t Stay here!!

This hostel came recommended to me from my friend and heavily recommended in travel guide books and hence I booked 2 days of my Hue stay at this hostel. But, when I reached the place and stayed at the hostel, I figured out that they needed to do a lot of fixing before they could run a hotel/hostel. Below review is based on my recent stay here.

1) At the outside, the hostel looks like any other backpackers hostel with a great English speaking reception, a large bar and a good restaurant. But, that is where the good things end.

2) The AC in my entire dormitory was not working and in spite of it they charged all the occupants of the dorm the full charge. Nearly 3 people got electrocuted while taking a shower in the bathroom. It looked like they had some electrical circuitry trouble in the building and that is why the customers were getting electric shocks.

3) There is a building opposite the hostel that is being demolished. This demolition ensures that you cannot stay in the hostel peacefully (you can forget sleeping or relaxing) from 7 AM to 5 PM.

4) This hostel like all other hostels has a great set of backpacker people you can interact with. They have free wi-fi and offer free breakfast. Hot shower and laundry services are also provided.

5) The place is located on the tourist street and is close to all the main attractions, the Perfume river and the night markets of Hue.

6) The reception is not bad and they refunded me my 2nd day’s payment, but they refused to give any discount on the first even though all of us sweated out in our dorm without the AC.

Currently, I would request all travelers to AVOID this hostel, unless they get their act together. When I was there, they were not safe, lacked amenities promised by them and offered a nightmarish experience due to the high decibel levels of the demolition outside. They are a good place otherwise. Just ensure that you verify the situation before planning to stay there. Personally, they lost me as their customer forever.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mrs. Flower’s Homestay: Comfortable and budget house for backpackers in Hoi An, Vietnam

In a city like Hoi An, one should try and stay in a local’s house than in a hotel. The reasons are plenty. The locals of Hoi An are very friendly, their houses are away from the busy area and hence quieter, you get more for a lesser price, you get to stay with a local family who don’t pester you to buy anything and you get easy accessibility to the restaurants and the happening parts of town. These are the reasons why I moved from a hotel after 1 night and stayed 6 nights and 7 days at Mrs.Flower’s Homestay on 39, Thai Phien street. Below review is based on my recent experience.

1) Mrs. Flower’s Homestay is run by a local Vietnamese lady Mrs. Flower and her husband. She lets out 3 rooms. The rooms are fairly large, accommodate a double bed, a wardrobe, a refrigerator, an air-conditioner and a private/shared bathroom.

2) The room prices vary from $10 to $12 per night depending on the size of the room. This is way less than what the hotels charge for a similar sized room.
 
3) The family living in this house are very helpful. They try and help you out with languages, directions, best times, best places to eat, cheap places, etc.

4) Mineral water bottles are kept outside each room and one pays only for the water they consume. Free wi-fi is available, but the reception is stronger in the ground floor. Tenants can also use the laundry machine for a small fee. You use it, you take it out and dry it out on the terrace concept.

5) If there is a problem with this place, it is the 11 PM tock down. Sometimes, you feel like spending a late night out with friends or being in a bar or restaurant till past mid night. This is not possible here as the doors to the house shut at 11 PM.

6) In my room, the AC was there, but it was under repair and since it was the Tet holidays no one could come to repair. May be it was my bad luck, but things happen a bit slower in the house when compared to a hotel. Thankfully, the weather was pleasant and my room had a large window thus allowing good air circulation.

7) The cheap restaurants are all close by and even the main shopping district is just a short walk away.

8) If you want to either rent a motorcycle or a bicycle, you can directly approach Mrs. Flower or go to any of the multiple shops near by. A cycle should cost you 10 to 30,000 dong depending on the condition and a motorbike between $4 and $5 per day.

9) Most of the tour booking agencies are located close by and within walking distance. Since Hoi An is a small town, everything is within walking distance. The super marts are also close by and if you want, you can store perishables in your room’s refrigerator.

10) The family staying in this house are very friendly and will always invite you for food and drinks.

11) Most of the people living in the house sleep by 11 PM and hence you will have to get into hostel mode and keep the decibel level down after 10 PM.

This place is ideal for budget travelers and couples who like to stay long durations and like to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist districts. If you would like to book here, you can contact them by phone at +84 983150329 or by email at hoaflower80@hotmail.com.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

CupoNation: Savings for the Traveler

As a traveler, I am always looking to reduce my travel cost thereby ensuring that I can spend the money more fruitfully elsewhere or be able to travel for a longer period of time. It was during such a search that I came across CupoNation. CupoNation is a website that provides a collection of valuable voucher codes to help people buy a product or service they want at a price that is more affordable. Some of the things that caught my eye were getting flight tickets for Rs 2,250 and good discount coupons for booking tickets on Yatra, Make My Trip and other travel booking services.

CupoNation's Travel Discount Vouchers
There are a lot of these discount coupon providers out there, but I like CupoNation because of the sheer depth of sites that they have. Let’s take ‘Travel websites’ for example. In this category, they allow you access to Redbus (for booking bus tickets), Yatra, Expedia, MakeMy Trip, Jet Airways, Clear Car Rental, Abhibus,  Cleartrip, Goibibo, Hotels.com, Groupon India, Travelocity and more.

And they are not just into travel. They cover other key areas like:
1) Books Movies & Music
2) Electronics
3) Fashion and Apparel
4) Health and Beauty
5) Home & Living
6) Jewelry and Accessories
7) Kids & Baby
8) Mobile, Broadband & TV
9) Restaurants, and
10) Shoes and Bags

Across all categories, they cater to some popular brands like Expedia.co.in, Myntra.com, Pepperfry, Domino’s Pizza, Jabong.com, HomeShop18.com, eBay.in, Flipkart, Indiatimes Shopping, SnapDeal and more. This ensures that you can do coupon shopping at some of your more favorite online shops and thus allowing you more leverage to buy the product or service that you really like.

Apart from having operations in India, Cuponation also has their base in Poland, Brazil, Italy and Spain. I think they are a great way to save on your travel and other shopping expenses. Their user interface and entire service cycle is pretty straightforward. I have subscribed to them to ensure that I do not miss on any interesting offers. You should too!

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Brihadeeswarar Temple: More than 1000 years of Heritage

It is one of India’s most precious architectural sites. It’s temple tower is among the tallest of its kind in the world. It is a part of the Great Living Chola Temples, an UNESCO World Heritage site. It is known by many names, the Peruvudaiyar Kovil, Raja Rajeswara Temple, RajaRajeshwaram and Big Temple, but it is etched in the books as Brihadeeswarar Temple, named after Lord Brihadeeswara, the main deity of the temple.

Old Tamil Script in the foreground and the great living chola temple in the background
This Hindu temple was built in the early 11th century under the supervision of Raja Raja Chola I of the Chola kingdom of the Tamil Nadu. It is located in Thanjavur, the rice belt of Tamil Nadu and at one point in history, the headquarters of the Chola kingdom.

Saffron colour of the devotees dot the Brihadeeswarar Landscape
The Brihadeeswara Temple was built to be the royal temple to display the emperor’s vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order. This temple made out of granite is the largest one out of the three Great Living Chola Temples. The other ones being Airavateeswarar Temple at Darasuram and the Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple.

The main temple pillar of Brihadeeswarar Temple
Even to this day, this temple is fully operational and people throng to the temple to offer their prayers and seek blessings from the moolavar, Lord Shiva. It is said that during Shivaratri, during the month of February, the temple overflows with pilgrims and devotees. This temple is also one of those rare temples, which as statues for ‘Ashta-dikpaalakas’ – Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera and Isana.

Rich sculptures from the Chola times
Even though the temple is open from sunrise to about 8 in the evening, the Karuvarai or the inner sanctum is only open for half of those hours. If you want to see the main deity, the best option is to visit the temple during the early morning hours for abhishekam and deevaram or during the evening hours for the maha manglarti.

Brilliantly done up - A small temple in the Brihadeeswara Campus
One can visit this temple either as a devotee or as a tourist. Typically, people try and visit all the 3 Great Living Chola Temples in one go along with may be a short visit to the Tanjore Palace and the museums. The best time to visit the temples is during the winter months when the weather in Thanjavur and around is pleasant. If you cannot visit these temples in winter, try to accommodate your trips around the sunrise and sunset times when the weather is more bearable. The midday sun can be pretty strong here and is best avoided.

The calmer elephant after it finds out that the soldier is dead
To reach Thanjavur by air, the nearest airport is Trichy and you can check GoAir, Air India and other low cost or fully loaded airlines to book your flight tickets. Thanjavur is also well connected by train and road with the rest of the country. It should be fairly straightforward to book a ticket from any big city in India.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Water Puppet Show: Vietnam’s Heritage that you should not miss!!

I am sure a lot of us have seen various puppet shows around the globe. Some of them might have been very well orchestrated or they might have been simple village stuff. But, have you ever seen a water puppet show. Well, if you are interested, you can visit Vietnam and see it live at either Ho Chi Minh city, its capital or at Hanoi, the headquarters of the north.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre at Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I got a chance to sample this piece of Vietnamese Heritage when I saw a show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Ho Chi Minh city. The show lasted 50 minutes and cost me 150,000 VND. But, the joy of this show started before the show began when I walked into the theater and saw all the puppet mannequins at the entrance. Even better was the shiny flowing dresses of the artisans. The women especially look very pretty in those outfits.



The water puppet show is orchestrated on water and the artisans are behind the curtains and manage the puppets from there. But, for us, it looks like someone is managing the puppets from under the water. And they are so well managed that I was literally scratching my head to figure out how they managed such fine precision. While the various puppet characters portrayed tales from Vietnamese culture, it was accompanied by traditional music and voice over by the artisans. The singer in particular had a clear voice and I liked most of the traditional instruments. While the typical tourist might not understand the full puppet show as he doesn’t either understand the Vietnamese language or is cognizant of its culture and folk tales, there are small bits in the show that any tourist from anywhere in the world can understand owing to its simple demonstration.

I have tried to put together a video (above) that captures key highlights from the show. Hopefully, it can give you better insights into the Vietnamese culture. Personally, I would recommend every tourist to Vietnam to spare 50 minutes of their time for this show. Both adults and kids alike will enjoy this show. Enjoy the show!

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Travel Photo: Souvenir Shop in Hoi An, Vietnam

The old quarter of Hoi An is full of color. While history is all around the old quarter, today, it is more known as the shopping district of central Vietnam. Shoes, clothes, tailoring outfits, souvenir shops and many more adorn these small alleys.

Souvenir shop in the old quarter of Hoi An, Vietnam
This is one such colorful souvenir shop that I came across while walking the riverside area of the old quarter. While the smaller shops close down after sun down, the bigger ones stay up with bright lights making for a different view in the evenings.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Phuoc An River Hotel: A Good Riverside Hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam

I was forced to stay at this expensive hotel due to the over booked status of the hotels in Hoi An on the night I arrived. This was due to the Vietnam New Year. Even though I was forced to stay at this hotel, the hotel in itself was not bad at all. In fact, it was perfect. It cost me $35, but it was worth it in all ways. May be, I would not stayed here for more nights as the cost was high, but if I were on a short holiday, I would definitely have stayed here longer. Below review is based on my 1 night and 1 day stay at this hotel.

Thu Bon River flows through lush green paddy fields of Hoi An, Vietnam
1) The Phuoc An River Hotel is a 3 star hotel and hence you can expect the basic luxury amenities to be present. The rooms are fairly large with 2 double beds, a LCD television, AC, a balcony, a private bathroom with soap, shower gel, toothbrush, toothpaste, towels, etc., a mini bar and a wardrobe.

2) If you are a good eater, you can make full use of the healthy spread that the hotel lays out during breakfast. If I remember right they had more than 20 items that spanned continental and local dishes. The views from the restaurant are fantastic.

3) The location of this hotel is also its trump card. It is right opposite the Thu Bon river and about a 10 minute walk from the Cua Dai beach.

4) The hotel has an in-house spa that can be used for those in need of some relaxation.

5) The reception at this hotel is very attentive and ensure that all your questions are promptly answered and they try and help wherever they can.

6) If you are a internet-sapping traveler like me, then you will like the internet connectivity in this hotel. I got speeds in excess of 4 MBPS here.

7) The hotel is a little bit away (5 kms) from the old quarter of Hoi An. They offer free bicycles and paid shuttle buses to help you offset this distance.

I could have got a room in this hotel for less than the 700,000 VND that I paid, but since it was the Tet holidays, every hotel had hiked their prices. If you can get a lower rate for this hotel, you should definitely look at them as they can really make your stay comfortable.

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Never travel during the Chinese New Year: My Nha Trang Story from Vietnam

Before traveling to Vietnam, do ensure that your travel dates are not near ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year and definitely not in the 10 days after Tet. If it is, be ready to pay higher prices for everything (travel, food and accommodation) and sometimes be shooed out of a city just because there are no rooms to sleep in that city. If you are sensible, then you will plan your dates after the holiday season is over else, if you crazy like me, you will be treated to a great adventure. This is my adventure during the Tet holidays when I was made to travel from Mui Ne to Nha Trang to Danang to Hoi An, all in a single day, just because I chose to travel during Tet. Now, you might wonder that the entire world travels during the Christmas/New Year holiday season and we still find places to stay, albeit by paying a higher fee. The Tet, is similar, though it happens on a different scale. It comes in that time of the year when the tourists are still in Vietnam so the rooms are ready fairly booked and then the entire country (rich, middle class and poor) go into holiday mode. People visit their families, go out on day trips, drink all day, go to exotic places, get their photos taken and all the typical holiday stuff. The only difference is that the rest of the world has many holidays and hence the citizens of those countries split their holidays. In Vietnam, there is only one holiday, Tet, and the rest of the year, the Vietnamese work hard.

A Backpacking Break at Nha Trang's Beach, Vietnam
Hence, when Tet comes, the country literally shuts down for 11 days. Even the capital shuts down for 4-5 days. The places that don’t shut down are places catering to the holidaying crowd and they charge a premium for it. If you ask why, they will say ‘Happy New Year’ and expect you to understand it. Food prices go up by about 20%. It is even written on the menu cards in restaurants. Cost of travel goes up 3 to 4 fold. A $6 bus ticket from Mui Ne to Nha Trang cost me $18. The biggest jump takes place in the hotel prices. A $5 hotel can go up to as much as $70 depending on the city and the hotel location.

Nha Trang Marine Drive as seen from Nha Trang Center
The worst place to be traveling to is Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular beach destination and Mui Ne, the adventure beach destination that is close to Ho Chi Minh city. Even before I left Ho Chi Minh city on the 2nd day of the New Year, I knew it would be difficult to travel, but wasn’t aware of the enormity of the crowd. It took me 5 hours to find a place that fit my budget in Mui Ne and after paying 3 times the regular price for a bus ride to Nha Trang, I found out that I got lucky at Mui Ne and Nha Trang is the true thing. I searched for a hotel from 5:30 AM to 10 AM, only to find out that all the hotels were booked in the city. I knew it would be bad as last evening when I had checked the internet, 90% of the places were sold out and the ones that were available were too expensive. Even the hotels that I had called were booked. But, I was not ready for a ‘Sorry we are full’ and ‘It is Happy New Year, we are full…full…full’ kind of statements.

My best purchase_a six dollar hammock_perfect backpacking companion
I was forced to look outside Nha Trang and this led me to book myself on a train to Danang, a coastal city in Central Vietnam. Thankfully, I got some hard sleeper seats. The train was scheduled to leave Nha Trang at half past one in the afternoon and hence I had enough time to kill in Nha Trang, which is a decent looking coastal town. I headed straight to the beach, dropped my bags there, went for a swim with the mighty waves and then paid $1 for a fresh water garden hose bath right on the beach. After freshening up, I fixed up my hammock under the coconut trees to relax for a while while the holidaying crowd whizzed past me. After a short nap, I walked to the nearby Nha Trang center for a wholesome lunch meal while I watched the Nha Trang marine drive from high up.

My train left the Nha Trang station in the afternoon and after 10 and a half hours of breezing through lush green countryside, beautiful coasts and mist covered mountains, I reached the town of Danang. Thankfully, I had caught up on some sleep in the train and thus had enough energy to haggle with the taxi drivers for a ride to Hoi An, about 35 kms from Danang. When I arrived at Hoi An, it was mid night and again I was treated to the same statements of ‘We are full and it is Happy New Year’. Thankfully, a local helped me in finding a good place, though I paid $35 for it. I am sure he got some commission for himself from the hotel staff, but nonetheless, he helped me. As you can see, if you wish to travel during Tet, it will be crazy, very expensive and a real pain. If this doesn’t matter to you, then rock on, else stay put in one place during Tet. Better still, stay out of Vietnam till everything returns to normalcy.

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Lang Cat Sand Village, Mui Ne: A lovely guest house on the beach!!

It took me 5 hours to find this place, but I was happy that I found it. I arrived in Mui Ne during the Tet holidays in Vietnam and like most of Vietnam, Mui Ne was either running full or overly expensive. Mui Ne is a popular beach destination that is close to Saigon and is known for its adventure sports. This quality ensured that the locals swarmed to this beach town making bookings very difficult to get. I stayed at this beach side house for 2 nights and 3 days and this review is based on that experience of mine.

Sunset at Mui Ne Beach, Vietnam
1) The best attribute about this place are the people managing it. Tim Martin, Olly and a Vietnamese lady who manage this place are very helpful and try to make you as comfortable as possible. Even though I checked out on the 3rd day in the morning, they allowed me to stay in their common area till 1 AM in the night (as that was the time I had a bus out of Mui Ne). They even allowed two Canadian couples to sleep on their beach when they could not find accommodation anywhere in Mui Ne.

2) They are one of the cheapest beach side properties in Mui Ne. At $15, you can get a large air-conditioned room with a private bathroom that is equipped with a hot shower.

3) They offer free wi-fi and have a beach facing restaurant that offers decent, but basic fare. Food and drinks are good, though a bit on the higher side in terms of cost. But, the cost is offset by the location and their candle light setup for the evenings.

4) The property is in the Mui Ne town and away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist district and hence can offer you good privacy. Even though it is away from the touristy area, it still has easy access to restaurants, bars, motorbike rental shops, marts and all.

5) The beach is really just a couple of feet away. You can swim, enjoy a relaxed sun bath, indulge in some kite surfing or wind surfing and/or ask Tim to take you out sailing on his boat.

6) It is also a great place to watch beautiful sunsets.

7) Since it is in the Mui Ne town, it is closer to all the hotspots around Mui Ne, especially the Red and the White sand dunes.

If you want a quiet place that is not too expensive, but on the beach, then you should look at the Lang Cat Sand Village. It is a house that is managed by good people you will have a good time with.

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How to access Facebook in Vietnam?

No access to Facebook in Vietnam! What? Yes, outside some areas of Ho Chi Minh city and some big hotels in other cities of Vietnam, one cannot access Facebook. Absurd as it may sound, it is true. I heard about it from other travelers, but let it slip away from my head then. I got a first hand experience of it when I landed at Mui Ne in Vietnam. I had access to Facebook in Ho Chi Minh city as my friend’s house was in a neighborhood that allowed Facebook access. But, unfortunately for me that was my last access to Facebook in Vietnam.

Vietnam, like China has blocked Facebook access through all its Internet Service Providers. This might solve its purpose for managing government issues, but it is a big pain for tourists who use it for connecting with friends and family and for people like me who need Facebook access to update my page. I was a bit tired the first day, so I let the issue pass, but on the second day, I started trying out various ways to access Facebook in Vietnam through Google. I knew kproxy works in such situations, but it was blocked here too. Then, I tried the dynamic proxy site, one of the more popular engines used for Facebook access in China. They worked for me, but only for 25 minutes, after that I had to subscribe to their paid feature for access. I used the free version for 1 day and then luckily for me, I found a Russian friend, who helped me fix the issue permanently.

This solution ensures that you can access Facebook anywhere in Vietnam through any Internet Service Provider. All you have to do is go to your network and sharing center, find the properties to your ISP and then manually over ride the DNS Server settings to 8.8.8.8. This will ensure that you can access Facebook anywhere in Vietnam.

Happy Facebooking!!

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Koh Rong’s Long Beach: One of the best beaches I have visited

New York times puts it in the ‘Top 5 Beaches in the world’ list. I do not hesitate to say that it is one of the top beaches that I have been to. It has a long beach stretch, lovely waters safe for swimming, it is remote and hence very few people turn up here and it is in absolute pristine condition. This beach is the Long Beach of Koh Rong Island in South Cambodia.

The Lovely Long Beach of Koh Rong Island
This beach is so long that even if there are 150 people (which is generally a high number for this beach), you have enough beach area to ensure that the other people look like small dots in your vision. The hard beach floor, but soft on the foot, ensures that walking on it barefoot is like walking in heaven. The white sands are very pleasing to the eye and the shallow turquoise waters are perfect for swimming and floating. If you like to get a tan while reading your favorite book and not be bothered by anyone, then this is the place you have to be at. Since no local lives on this side of the island, there is no tourist infrastructure here and that means that you cannot get anything to eat or drink. Hence, if you do plan to spend the day here, it is advisable to carry enough water and food to survive the day. It would also be a good idea to carry a with you.

Your own private Long Beach on Cambodia's Koh Rong Island
To reach the long beach, there are 2 options. One, you can do the 45 minute slightly adventurous hike from the bungalows on Koh Rong Island. This hike crosses tropical forests and then follows a steep decline that leads into the beach. The second option is to take the boat from the Koh Rong boat jetty to the Long Beach. A typical charge per person for such a trip is USD 4. Since the long beach waters are pretty shallow, the boat will drop anchor quite far away and you will have to wade through waist deep water to reach the beach.

Sunset colours on the tropical forests of Koh Rong Island
Since the beach is a west facing beach, one of its best views is during sunset. Try not to miss it. The Long  beach here, like most of the beaches on Koh Rong Island is notorious for its sand flies, whose bites can be very irritating. Ensure that you spray yourself liberally with insect repellant that has a high DEET percentage. This is one place you should not miss on your next holiday to Cambodia. More so if you like tropical beach holidays.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saigon’s Sense Restaurant: Cuisine of Hue, Vietnam

If you are in Ho Chi Minh city and would like to taste authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a up market place, take a look at Sense Restaurant that is situated in Ho Chi Minh city’s happening District 1. This up market restaurant serves Vietnamese food from Hue, the biggest city in Central Vietnam. The food here is not as spicy as Thai food or sweet as Cambodian food, but has a subtle flavor that comes from the use of Lotus roots and other ingredients unique to Hue.

Unlike most other Vietnamese restaurants, the Sense restaurant has a menu, albeit a short one for vegetarian options. The options are not healthy like the ones for meat eaters, but the food sure does taste good. The restaurant is pricey and on an average, food costs between 5 and 8 USD. There is a 5% VAT and 10% service tax on top of that price. If you are going during Tet, you might spend 15-20% more. The place is near the Rex hotel and the Saigon palace hotel, so it is in prime locality.

I went there for dinner a night before the Tet New Year and the place was welcoming with a warm ambience. The people running the restaurant were very helpful in explaining to me the various food options. I would recommend this place if you are looking to try out vegetarian Hue-Vietnamese food.

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Cu Chi Tunnels: Unbelievable survival techniques

The world knows about the Vietnam-America war. After all it has been portrayed in so many Hollywood movies and books. But, what was portrayed in those movies was only a small bit of the entire enchilada. Unfortunately for Vietnam they were invaded by a lot of countries, France, China, Russia and United States of America. And all these wars happened in spite of Vietnam not having anything of tangible or intangible value to the attackers. The Cu Chi tunnels is one small, but important bit in Vietnam’s fight for freedom. It was a fight in which the Viet Cong soldiers fought hard against the American soldiers and the communist authorities of Vietnam. They suffered a lot through chemical bombs, bad food, inhospitable conditions, bad air supply and much more to build what is the largest man-made tunnel system on the planet.

US Army tank in ruins at CuChi Tunnels, Vietnam
This 259 kilometer long tunnel system is the Cu Chi tunnels that was dug up by the Viet Cong soldiers using small tools and it was through this tunnel system that they inflicted a huge attack on the American soldiers along the Saigon river. This form of tunnel attack and guerrilla warfare was the Viet Cong’s specialty and not the forte of the American soldiers. They used booby traps and night attacks to inflict heavy damage on the Americans.

Shells made by Viet Cong displayed at Cu Chi Tunnels
Today, this area, which was once a black battlefield is a well preserved and forested area that tourists can visit to understand the history and also the tunnel systems. The Vietnam army has a video to help the tourist get a quick idea of the history. Tourist guides can be hired to understand the history in detail. War remains and artifacts have been kept for the tourist to see. One can visit this place either as a day tour through a tour operator or through self-drive.

Cu Chi Tunnels built by the Viet Cong people of South Vietnam
The Cu Chi tunnels are 35 kms from Ho Chi Minh city. Entry to this place is 90,000 VND. The route is fairly shaded and hence it will not be too hot, but carry enough water to handle the humidity. Apart from the tunnels and the history, a lot of tourists come here to fire weapons under the supervision of the Vietnamese army. The tourist can fire an assortment of weapons that include AK-47, M-60, pistols and more. Bullets cost between 1-1.75 USD depending on the weapon and a minimum of 10 bullets have to be purchased. The shooting happens in a restricted environment with ear plugs under the supervision of a member from the Vietnamese army.

Trap Door at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam
To really understand the place, see if you can do a bit of reading on the place and the war prior to your visit. That would really help in connecting the dots. Else, it would look like a boring place except for the shooting range.

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Travel Photo: Red Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam

Sand dunes are a very beautiful sight. It becomes even more beautiful when it has color, in this case the color ‘Red’. And it becomes a natural wonder when you can see the ocean from on top of these sand dunes. Have you ever seen such a sight?

The Red Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam
I saw them yesterday when I climbed the red sand dunes of Mui Ne in South Vietnam that overlooks the South China Sea. When you are at the beach, you can indulge in some kite surfing, wind surfing, jet skiing and swimming and if you want some variety, all you have to do is drive down 10 minutes to the sand dunes and do some dune surfing or photography. The ocean views from these red sand dunes are pretty different.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Unable to access Facebook in Vietnam

For all those of you who are following me, my status updates, pictures, videos and articles through Facebook, I have some bad news for you. I am currently in a coastal town called Mui Ne in Vietnam and I am not able to access Facebook here. I tried logging in through a proxy server, but for some reason it does not allow me to authenticate my account. Hence, my Facebook account has been temporarily locked.

I will try and fix this whenever I get proper access to Facebook in the other cities of Vietnam. In the meantime, if you want to follow me, please drop by my blog or lookup my twitter handle (@sankaracs).

I had heard about this problem in Vietnam, but it slipped out of my head when I got proper Facebook access at Ho Chi Minh city, the capital of Vietnam. I am headed to Nha Trang next. I hope things get back to normal there. The funny thing is that the problem is only if I access Facebook through a computer/laptop using a browser or through my Android phone, but not through my friend’s iPad.

Thank you for bearing with me while I try to fix this issue.

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18 Random Things about Cambodia

Recently, I got to spend 22 days in Cambodia during which I covered Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Island and Kampot. While I covered these places, I got to experience some very interesting things about Cambodia. I have listed them out below for your reference.

1) In some places a meal is more expensive than stay for an entire day. Generally, food is more expensive in Cambodia than accommodation.

2) Alcohol is really cheap in the supermarkets. Most of the brands are between 30 and 50 percent of the actual cost and this applies to some of the best brands in the world too. I don’t know how they do it, but the alcohol is original for this price.

3) You can get to eat endangered species in Cambodia, for example, Snake-headed fish, which is highly endangered or nearly extinct in the rest of the world is sold openly in Cambodia’s markets.

4) People in Cambodia speak better English than Thailand or Vietnam, the countries on either side of it.

5) The Tuk Tuks in Cambodia are pulled by 110 cc or 125 cc motorcycles, but in spite of the small motorbike size, you get a lot of space and the journey is very comfortable.

6) Prostitution and escort services is rampant here. It is very difficult for you not to see such sights at any time of the day.

7) The ATMs in Cambodia dish out crisp US Dollars. It is very rare for the ATM to give you Cambodian Riels.

8) US Dollar is the de facto currency in Cambodia. Cambodian Riel is used mainly for change and for transactions amongst locals.

9) The people of Cambodia are very nice. They might not have a ready smile like the Thai, but if you strike a conversation with them, they will open up very nicely.

10) Gambling is legal in Cambodia. You can see casinos as soon as you enter its borders. It is no wonder that the Chinese real estate developers are becoming billionaires due to the casino business in Cambodia.

11) It is close to impossible for you to find vegetarian street food in Cambodia. Insects, fertilized embryo eggs, reptiles and regular meat are the norm.

12) Corruption is rampant in the government circles. If you want to set up any business here, you get an approval only when you have sent a healthy bribe to the government.

13) Cambodia follows the American system of driving.

14)  Garbage levels are quite high in most of the places in Cambodia, but steps are being taken in the right direction, albeit slowly.

15) Cambodia is a poor country, but if you see the size of the buildings and the amount of construction taking place in Phnom Penh, its capital, you will tend to think otherwise.

16) The entry fee to Angkor wat is USD 20 per day and about 10,000 visitors pay this fee every day. This equates to 73 million as an annual revenue per year for the temple. But, in spite of this the people living around the temple are extremely poor.

17) Hawkers, Tuk Tuk drivers and most of the people selling wares will try and sell you their stuff, in spite of you not being interested.

18) Bargaining is the norm in most of the developing world. But, in Cambodia, it is inflated multiple times. And generally, without you making any effort, the sellers themselves drop the price by 50% in the second conversation.

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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Happy New Year from Vietnam

Happy New Year!!

Happy Vietnamese New Year 2013
What? You might be surprised, but today, the 10th of February is actually the Vietnamese New Year ‘Tet’. It also falls on the same days as the Chinese New Year and it celebrates the new year and welcomes spring. During the New Year, the entire country comes to a grinding halt as every local in Vietnam celebrates it with a lot of fervor and spends a lot of relaxed time with their family.

Every building decked up for the New Year 2013 in Vietnam
Typically, the country takes a break for four days and that is in the capital city of Ho Chi Minh city, but if you go into the countryside, people are known to celebrate for as much as 10 days. The Vietnamese have an interesting way of celebrating their New Year. They buy a lot of flowers and peach blossom or other related trees to decorate their house. Then, they buy these greeting cards and gift it to their friends and family along with some money as a ‘Good Luck’ gesture. I have been less than a week here, but a local passed me some of the good luck too.

Streets of Ho Chi Minh city decked up for the Tet New Year 2013
As I write to you, I hear the fireworks going off in the background, but I returned home a little before the New Year gong as the entire city has taken to the street especially the area around the Rex hotel and the five star hotel corridor in District 1. Every place is decorated with lights, flowers and lamps. Everything looks beautiful, but I wanted to return home before the crowd returns home together after the midnight celebrations.

Ho Chi Minh is all done up for the Tet New Year
This is the ‘Year of the Snake’. Let’s welcome it and see what it has in store for all of us. Happy New Year Vietnam! Have a great year ahead!!

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Sihanoukville: The most popular beach destination in Cambodia

Cambodia is mostly known for its temples, but its south coast has an amazing stretch of white sandy beaches. The two most popular beach destinations are Sihanoukville and Kep, while the other two beautiful, but remote destinations are Koh Kong and Koh Rong. Out of these four places, most of the tourists prefer to visit Sihanoukville due to its large sandy beaches and good tourist infrastructure.

Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
It is not that Sihanoukville is the best place, but it offers a great base to get to the other places. It has great travel booking setups who will help you understand the various possibilities and options to get to the islands or neighboring beach towns.

Fried Young Lobsters sold at Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
If you just feel like spending your holiday in one town, then Sihanoukville also offers you the option of many beaches like the very clean Otres beach or the very touristy Serendipity and Occhetual beaches, the quieter Independence and Freedom beaches and some more. The city also has forests and mountains nearby that you can explore by foot, on a bicycle or on a motorbike. If you feel like pampering yourself, there are tuk tuks and air conditioned taxis for you to explore the city.

Balloon vendor on Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville
If you are the one beach type, just sit back, get a pedicure or massage on the beach, enjoy the local seafood, especially the baby squids that are found in plenty in these waters, go on long swims, read your books during the day while you sunbathe and then party in the night. The beaches of Sihanoukville have basically all the things that a tourist seeks for in his beach holiday.

Boats moored at Sihanoukville's Serendipity Beach
This beach town is also ideal for young travelers with a hip crowd, great parties, a lovely choice of beach facing bars, good assortment of restaurants, scuba diving opportunities and more. In sum, Sihanoukville has all the ingredients for making a great destination and once you have warmed up to this place, you can visit the other remote islands from here for a more exclusive beach holiday.

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Friday, February 08, 2013

Bungalow Kampot River: Brilliant Budget Huts next to the Kampot River in Cambodia

Staying next to the beach is always fun, but staying beside a river can be fun too. One such place is Kampot, the town in Southern Cambodia that is situated at the foothills of the Bokor Mountains. While the lush green Bokor mountains, its pepper plantations and the powdery white beaches of neighboring Kep are the main tourist attractions here, the true attraction of Kampot lies in its river. And that is why nearly all of the hostels, guest houses and bungalows are located beside the river. While I was at Kampot, I stayed at the Bungalow Kampot river, a budget hut type guest house that is located right by the river. I stayed here for 2 days and 1 night and this review is based on this recent experience of mine. The location was so nice that I wished that I could stay longer, but unfortunately I had a pre-booked bus ticket to Vietnam the next day from Phnom Penh.

1) The more I harp on the location, the lesser it will be. The place is ideal for backpackers. Huts built on stilts are located close to the river. On the 1st floor is your room and on the ground floor is your bathroom.

2) These bamboo huts cost about USD 6 per night and come with a double bed, towels, blankets, electricity, free wi-fi and oodles of peace.

3) Travelers who carry hammocks will like this place a lot as there is a lot of space to fix your hammock, read a book or just take a long siesta. The hut also comes with its own hammock. The one you carry will be an extra.

4) Since this place is like a backpacker den, the people who stay here stick around for a long while and they make for very interesting company.

5) The Bungalow Kampot river has a restaurant that is literally on the water. Breakfast in this restaurant is a brilliant site. You can have your morning coffee, go for a swim, have breakfast and sun bathe on the tubes that float in their property. Or if you feel adventurous, you can jump from a nearby dive board.

6) At around the evening time, you can either go for a swim, paddle your bamboo raft or go on a sunset cruise arranged by the guest house.

7) The other great thing about this restaurant is their food. Not only is its authentic fare, but they give enormous quantity.

8) There are some things in this place that sophisticated tourists won’t like. For example a frog in your bathing bucket, a lot of spiders and insects to give you company and more. But, that is the beauty of staying in the countryside. Your hut comes with a mosquito net and hence you can ensure that the mosquitos and insects stay clear of you. And then there is always insect repellant.

9) The guest house also arranges tours to Kep and the Bokor mountains. They provide bicycles free of cost to all their customers so that they can explore the countryside at their own pace. They also help in booking bus tickets.

In overall, the Bungalow Kampot river is a great place to spend your river side holiday. Personally, I definitely want to return here again as I liked this place and the surrounding environment a lot. The place is ideal for backpackers and budget travelers who prefer to stay long durations at one place.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

The River of the 1000 Lingas

The term ‘Holy Water’ is there in most religions. It is there in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others. The term exists in the Angkor group of temples in Cambodia too. A lot of Hindus from India travel to Cambodia to see this sight. A lot of tourists  from other religions and countries see it too.

Siem Reap River_River of the 1000 Lingas
This is the site in the mountains where the Siem Reap river flows over a 1000 lingas (the Hindu god Shiva) deep in the forests. This place is very far away from Siem Reap, at about 50 kms from the city. Only serious enthusiasts, travelers and temple fanatics make this far. After all, you have to brave a half day ride in a tuk tuk or an expensive drive in the taxi to see this place.

Waterfall on the Siem Reap River
I went to this place by tuk tuk. It cost me about $15 for the entire half day exercise. I left in the morning at 7 AM and returned to my hotel in Siem Reap at around 1 PM. The journey to the entry point of the 100 Lingas took me about one and a half hours. Here, they check your tickets (your Angkor ticket is valid here) and off you begin your climb to the top. The tourist guide books and the locals say that it takes 45 minutes for the climb, but if you are fit and ready to walk 2.8 kms of climb in one go, you can cover it in between 12 and 15 minutes. A good pair of shoes or floaters is ideal, though not mandatory. Terrain is well covered by trees, so you need not worry about getting sun burnt, though you might have to worry about the humidity. Hence, carry at least a liter of water on you.

Lingas and God Carvings on the Siem Reap River in Cambodia
Once you reach your destination, you will wonder why you made this climb when you can’t see anything. And it is precisely for this reason that the Angkor authorities have instated two guides who will show you the various rock inscriptions in and around the water. They will show you the Maha Vishnu in Ananta Sayanam position supported by his nagas, the 3 headed Brahma, Nandi Bull – the vehicle of Lord Shiva, various Apsaras and Devas, Crocodiles, Frogs and the 1000 lingas that have been carved onto the stones here. So in essence, the waters of the Siem Reap river flows over the Hindu gods and thus the water is considered holy.

Holy Water from the Siem Reap River
If you walk a little further downstream, you will hear a waterfall and when you get to it, the guide will tell you that you can take a holy bath here. A lot of tourists do not take a bath here as there are no support systems and no one is carrying their swimming trunks and towel. But, luckily for me, I was carrying mine and had a fantastic shower under the holy waterfall on the Siem Reap river. The water is very pleasant and the force is perfect for a soothing and relaxing bath. Whether you are here as an inquisitive traveler, a temple lover, a Hindu patriot or a connoisseur of good architecture, you will like this place. The place has enough in it to keep your mind occupied for 2 hours straight.

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