First Stop – Melbourne, Australia

Australia is a traveller’s dream. It is a modern country with a fully functioning democracy, English-speaking, with a warm and sunny climate, beautiful, coastal beaches, out of this world scenery, rich in resources, and not too many people. What more could a traveller ask for?

There are many different ways to see this vast country but because it’s expensive it can be a daunting task for a solo traveller on a budget like me to decide how to do it. I realised that the only way to see as much as I wanted in just under a month would be to fly the cheapest ways possible.

My intention at first was to fly to Sydney using that as a base to start and finish. However, that plan flew out the window when in December, while researching cheap flights to Australia, a fantastic opportunity with Jet Star Airlines popped up out of nowhere. My take off point was Singapore and if you want to find out why, check out my post Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream. Taking this opportunity to fly to Melbourne first made sense because from there I could easily fly up to Alice Springs, on to Cairns, and then to Sydney, my departure point. Seizing this opportunity would be a good start towards helping to keep me within my budget, knowing that other things such as accommodations and food would be double the price of travelling in SE Asia.

All was good now that I had a plan. After a stress free stay in Singapore (You can check out my post entitled Four Days in Singapore )I was looking forward to my upcoming trip to the Land of Oz. On the day before my departure, I received an e-mail from Jet Star that my 8:15 p.m. flight was delayed until 5:30 the following morning. This meant I had to find a place to sleep for a few hours at least. My hotel came to the rescue with an additional charge for the extra hours I would need. On top of that was the stress of dealing with the place I had booked in Melbourne which had a ‘no refund’ policy. They did promise to hold my room until I arrived. If I wanted compensation, I would have to get it from the airline. The trouble was I didn’t take out cancellation insurance because it’s costly. This is what budget travellers do. We take our chances and hope that the worst won’t happen, and if it does, we pay for it. It’s always a gamble.

I had only three full days to explore this cultural capital of Australia which has always competed for the number one spot with Sydney to be not just the cultural capital, but the capital of the country. The war on who should get the coveted title was finally settled by the decision to build a new city as the capital which is Canberra.

Federation Square – the cultural & meeting centre for Melbourne.

My accommodation choice while in Melbourne was a small, country-style inn of some character in St. Kilda, one of Melbourne’s precincts. St Kilda is a beach side resort, not far from the CBD (central business district). With this location and its apparent old world charm, I booked a room at Little St. Kilda with booking.com. I arrived tired and cranky after a long 11 hour trip with little to eat except the few snacks I brought with me. Discount airlines give you nothing except your seat. You pay for everything including earphones if you wish to listen to music. To add insult to injury, they then charge you for the music!

Gateway to Little St. Kilda.

When I finally found Little St. Kilda, two hours after my arrival, I couldn’t get in. The door was locked and the house was in darkness. “How could this be the place I booked?” I asked myself. This looked like a private home with no one in it. There was no sign or even a house number. I looked around for a doorbell in the dark and instead found a box with numbers on it. But wait, underneath it was a button which looked promising so I pressed it, to which a voice responded telling me to use my code number. “Code number, what code number,” I yelled. “The one we sent you,”  said the calm, slightly condescending voice. “I did not receive any messages from anyone about this!” I yelled back. Realising I am starting to come apart at the seams, the voice quickly gave me the four digit code to punch in. Barely able to see the numbers, I have to trust I am hitting the right ones. With my first attempt nothing happens so I try again. “Wait for the click and then push the door,” he barks. Finally, there is a faint click and I push. I’m in! I turn left as the voice directed and find before me a long, elegant hallway with an inviting living room at the end. Where is the check-in counter, I wonder? How naive of me. This is no ordinary hotel. There is not a human in sight to greet me or to show me to my room. Now what do I do? Is this some kind of joke? Then it dawns on me that this is one of those ‘do it yourself’ check-ins similar to what you might encounter when staying at an Airbnb. The only option was to make myself comfortable on the inviting sofa until someone came along. If no one came, I thought, I could stretch out on this comfy sofa for my first night’s sleep. Thank goodness I had the good sense to stop on my way to this place for a bite to eat. At least I wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. While pondering this rather bizarre situation, I realised the voice over the intercom had to come from somewhere in the house so in that case he would come shortly to take me to my designated room. I would just have to be patient!

It seemed like an eternity before  a young chap appeared to ask if I was happily settled into my room.  “What room?” I asked in disbelief.  “The Marina Room noted in the e-mail you were sent,” he replied. By this time I was totally baffled and wondered if I was loosing my marbles. I had been checking my e-mails and found nothing from Little St. Kilda. It wasn’t until a few weeks later I found that much-needed e-mail with all the check-in instructions in my spam box.

Once I got into my charming room, I quickly forgot my woes of getting into it. I was just thankful for a comfortable bed to lay down on for a good night’s sleep. As well as the great bed and other amenities such as a fridge and a kettle for making tea, there was also a well-equipped kitchen nearby to prepare my breakfasts in the morning and dinners at night. Dining out in Australia is very expensive so this is the only way to go if you are on a budget.

Unfortunately, other unexpected problems popped up during my stay concerning  the final bill. An additional $40 for cleaning fees had been added and no allowance had been made as I had requested for my missed night. Never have I heard of a cleaning fee for a hotel or guest house on Booking.com. On Airbnb it is clearly visible as a part of the cost. Then I got it! The owners were cutting their costs by listing with Booking instead of Airbnb because it’s cheaper for them. I checked out their website again and found to my surprise that there was mention of a cleaning fee but for less than what I was charged.

Clearly I was not too happy with my stay at Little St. Kilda. My visit had already been cut short by a day, and once there all I seemed to get was grief. My only contact with the hosts was by intercom, phone and e-mail. The young chap, who gave me an orientation of the place, was seldom to be seen afterwards. He apparently was a long-term guest enlisted by the owners to deal with problem guests like me who had difficulties with their checking-in process. From then on I was on my own to find my way around. Fortunately, the Aussies I sought help from were more than happy to comply.

When the time came for me to give my review to Booking about my stay, I realised I didn’t have much to say that was good. I was all set to give them a bad review which I rarely do since I always pick places based on good testimonials which never have let me down . Yet this place which had a 9 out of 10 didn’t come close for me. The only way to handle it was to let them know of my discontent. I did and wasn’t too surprised that after “some consultation” they would give me a refund for my missed night. In the end, they got a decent review from me, however, I did suggest they try to improve their check-in procedure and make sure a light was on for those who were checking in after dark.

My lovely room.

My first day in Melbourne was spent just getting to know the area of St. Kilda which I read was once a seedy area of nightclubs, prostitutes, and crime. This is certainly not true now as it has morphed into an up and coming area of trendy homes and restaurants.

A stately home with lovely filigree. Reminded me of homes in southern US.

However, before I set out to explore, I needed to find a place for breakfast. It was at least a ten minute walk to the centre of St. Kilda. When I got to the busiest cross street, I decided this would be the best place to look. I guessed correctly because what I found almost blew me away. It was not just the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, but in the midst of all of them were at least a half-dozen cake shops strung out in a row one after the other. Never have I ever seen such a display of mouth-watering sweets. Most of them offered good coffee and breakfast so I decided to try one out. I was famished so opted for poached eggs on toast. No butter on the toast and a fairly middling cup of coffee didn’t make much of an impression especially at a price of $11. As I was leaving, I made a promise to get to the Woolworth’s or Woolie’s* as the Aussie say before they closed to buy some food to make my own breakfasts.

One of those cake shops.

And another one.

Melbourne can boast of having some of Australia’s nicest beaches and St. Kilda is lucky enough to have one of them.  With the first glimpse of that beach, all my stress from the past few days just melted away. Finally I had found one of the reasons for my coming to Australia. It was a sunny but windy day so not overly inviting for a swim, but I found the solitude I needed by sitting there on the sand watching the balloons and surfers. I was also able to walk along the beach via a boardwalk that gave me the feeling of being in the country even though in the distance I could see Melbourne’s skyscrapers.

It was a bit wild that day.

Part of the walkway.

My remaining two days were spent exploring the CBD ( Central Business District). With the help of a Miki card which is free pass that can be topped up for any amount depending on what you are planning to use it for, I managed to get around to see a few places of note. My first stopping place was the Melbourne Museum which you can read about in Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia.

No, he’s not a live one. Taken at the Melbourn Museum.

There was far too much to see in just two days and getting to these places wasn’t always easy to do. I have to admit their transit system was confusing, not just for me, a visitor, but even to some of the Aussies because I kept getting different stories of how to use the card. Some stops required you to tap for getting on and off, while for others you only needed to tap getting on. Then there were the free trams which would take you around the centre. Great idea but many of the people I asked weren’t sure just where to link on to them or even which buses qualified. Such conflicting stories I did not need so opted in the end to hoof it.

I love old buildings with outstanding architecture which Melbourne has in abundance. The State Library Victoria is one of them which I found the time to visit and was glad I did. The reading room with its magnificent dome and soaring glass was one of the largest in the world when it opened in 1913. It’s now one of the most photographed sites in Australia.

A close up of the dome.

Looking down on the Reading Room with its 3-tiered gallery.

However, putting aside the architectural splendor of this building, the second most interesting thing about this library is its abundance of art and memorabilia on the state of Victoria. Here I learned all about Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, an Irish man of poor background, who has become the stuff of legend to most of the country. His rogue life and the discrimination he endured turned him into the kind of criminal you could not hate no matter what he did. An articulate man despite no education, he left letters which were on display stating his concern for the under privileged. In addition, there was his suit of armour which he wore on some of his killing forays to reveal his bad boy side. He would do anything so long as he could get retribution for the poor at the expense of the rich gold diggers. Not surprising that he has become a symbol of all the things that were wrong in Australian at that time.

Ned Kelly’s armour.

One of his letters.

Another attraction in Melbourne is the lovely Yarra River where you can take a boat trip or walk along its meandering course lined with numerous parks and a huge Botanical Garden. I chose to do neither since my feet would not allow it. Taking the time to sit there with the ducks was enough for me. As I gazed out over the river, I recalled a similar scene many years ago in Cambridge, England where expert oarsmen plied their skiffs along that river. I realised that this was just one of the ways that Melbourne still reveals its British heritage.

An Australian magpie.

The following day I had to leave for my next stop…Alice Springs. By now I was beginning to get a better feel for this massive country and the people. Melbourne taught me a valuable lesson as I came to grips with my rough start at Little St. Kilda. Australians really are true pioneers in a sense. Their approach seems to be that everyone, including tourists, must step up to the plate. We’ll help you but you must help yourself, too. Ask us the questions and we will answer them the best we can, but don’t expect us to read your minds. That was my first impression but I knew there would be more.

Woolworth’s is one of the largest chain of supermarkets in the country and Woolies is what they fondly call it.

Some additional shots of Melbourne

Outside the State Library

Cafe scene in St. Kilda

There’s that Aussie sense of humour.

 

 

 

Four Days in Singapore

With a four-day stop over in Singapore,  I am happy to report that just about everything that’s been said about this unique city/city-state is true.

I arrived at Changi Airport just as the sun was setting so was able to see what was in store as the shuttle bus drove at a decent speed into the centre of the city where I am staying. The Bougainvillea lined freeway failed to turn up even one scrap of garbage…anywhere. I was looking both sides and saw nothing. What a contrast to Cambodia or any of the SE Asian countries.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this is why some have said they found Singapore boring. Was it boring because it looks like a city should with clean streets and orderly traffic? Are we to the point that it takes dirt and poverty to stimulate our senses?

To tell the truth, these very qualities espoused by Singapore have put me into seventh heaven. For me it’s a pleasure to be walking around a city that seems to work. Traffic is heavy as it is in all big cities, but it moves at a good pace. There isn’t a lot of honking and excessive noise with big trucks and buses spewing out toxic fumes. Motorists stop for pedestrians before you even put a foot into the street, and they wait until you are all the way across. Pedestrians are equally as courteous. They don’t jay walk, and they wait patiently at the traffic lights until the walk signal comes up. At times this seems like an eternity to me. The Singaporeans don’t mind waiting; they can check their phones instead. Everyone has a phone to play with here. When I thought Bangkok took the prize for this phenomenon I have learned that it must be Singapore. While on the MRT (the subway), all twenty or so people in my car  except me and one other person was concentrated on their phones.

Street scene with old and new.

Since my solo travel began five years ago, I have found that the best way for me to explore a large city at first is by walking and getting to know the area where I am staying. I keep the regular tourist sites or ‘must sees’ for later…if ever. I am happy to get three out of ten of the best recommended sites. Trying to take in everything that everyone else goes to see would stress me out. I’ll take sore feet at the end of a day over that kind of stress.

My first day in a brand new city, especially one that has been recently named the most expensive place to live in the world, can offer mixed emotions for me. Yes, it’s definitely thrilling  for me to explore new territory but underneath there is always a little anxiety. My main stressors are getting oriented so I at least head out in the general direction I want to go and figuring out the general lay of the land. That way I can finally decide where I want to walk.

The advantage I had in carrying out this plan in Singapore is that all Singaporeans speak English. This is their first language but then you have all the various other languages, such as Mandarin, Malay, and Hindi with their different accents and rendition of English which doesn’t always make their English understandable to a person like me whose auditory strength borders on the weak side. With the help from the friendly staff at the Champion Hotel City where I have been staying, I quickly opted to start my exploration close to my area which just happens to be at the border of Chinatown and within walking distance to downtown and the Singapore River.

Entrance to Chinatown.

I found out that the river is the cleanest it’s ever been. At one time before Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was filthy. I doubt many places can boast of this today, at least not any in Asia.

The Singapore River

Fortunately, I had an ideal location and if I wanted to go further afield all I had to do was figure out the complicated (to me anyway) subway system and go from there. I decided to make it really simple that first day by walking straight up Victoria Rd. to the area known as Bugis noted for its diversity, history and shopping.

Entering the Bugis area.

I expect most of you have heard of the Raffles Hotel with its famous bar serving the equally famous singapore sling. How about the man who started all this…Sir Stamford Raffles? My trek to Bugis helped me sort out some historical facts regarding this man who is considered to be the founder of what is modern-day Singapore. It has a humble beginning as a fishing village inhabited by poor Malays (people from Malaysia) at the time when Raffles’ made his appearance under British rule. This was in the early 1800’s which isn’t so old by our standards considering what Singapore is today. At that time, the area was controlled by the Dutch and those living there, numbering about a 1,000 were chafing at the bit under their rule. Sensing this, Raffles quickly proposed a more lucrative trade for them under Britain. With the right kind of diplomacy and salesmanship, a partnership was born and there has been no looking back ever since. Today his legacy can be seen on buildings and streets everywhere.

A little history of Bugis and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Before reaching Bugis I came upon a stately white portal or gate and wall encircling an attractive older building and grounds which looked at first glance like a five-star hotel sporting a couple of high-class restaurants and a courtyard. Seeing a parade of women dressed in beautiful long dresses spoke of some kind of ceremony to be held…a wedding perhaps? However upon closer scrutiny, I realised I was wandering around a significant historical site which also housed a gorgeous Gothic style church painted in white. Except for its colour it looked much like the Notre Dame in Paris. The site I had stumbled upon is called Chijmes, dating back to the 1880’s when it was built as an orphanage by the nuns for abandoned females. As far as I can fathom, it simply isn’t on the tourist radar. None of the brochures and maps mentioned it. Such a pity because the site is beautiful and a perfect symbol of Singapore’s past. The ladies were singers taking part in a Singing Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out when the actual performance was to be held. What I saw was a dress rehearsal.

The Chijmes Cathedral

A choir in their lovely purple dresses.

My travels that day also took me to a couple of ritzy malls… the brochures weren’t kidding when they said this was one of the best shopping areas in the city along with others like Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown, and the list goes on. Singapore could brag they are the most over-malled city in the world.

At one point I wandered into a predominately Muslim area (Halal) evidenced by the number of women wearing scarves. Hunger was taking over by this time so I decided to stop for an afternoon meal which would serve as lunch and dinner. A restaurant with the Trip Advisor logo and a claim to have the best biryani in Singapore caught my attention so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and by Singaporean standards I got good value for my money at $14 which by the way is a few cents more in our Canadian money. Not bad considering the menus I had looked at where almost double that.

A chocolate dessert at a mere $18.

One of the tourist recommendations I did take in was the iLight Show at Marina Bay a magical display of light and colour celebrating the city’s support of sustainability. It showed creations from artists around the world including a Canadian artist from Quebec.

An exhibit made from used plastic.

This creation named Light Breeze is made from used neon tubes.

The light show with the Marina Bay in the background.

I couldn’t afford to have a drink at Raffles so instead I went to Level 33 a bar up on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre where I opted for a cappuccino which I enjoyed much more than a singapore sling. The views were just as good, too.

View from Level 33 of the harbour and the container ships.

View of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino with the Supertrees Garden on top.

Yesterday I met up with some Chiang Mai friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Halia Restaurant. We had so much to talk about that we didn’t leave nearly enough time to explore this English garden landscape dating back to the 1800’s. To this day it remains a major centre for plant research and breeding, with orchids leading the list. It’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and has won numerous awards. Time magazine described it as ‘Asia’s best urban jungle’. It comes highly recommended so I’m sorry we didn’t plan this better so we could see more of it. Maybe it was just as well we didn’t because by the time we finished our meal the humidity and the heat were overwhelming.

Friends Irene and Trevor.

Finally, you can’t visit Singapore and not take the time to visit the two most popular enclaves: Chinatown and Little India. I had my first meal in Chinatown the night I arrived…dumplings, my favourite Chinese food. Then yesterday I made a quick run through Little India, brimming with colour and bargains in Indian jewellery and clothing. For Indian food lovers there were restaurants galore. This was probably the place where I saw more garbage than usual, nevertheless,  by Indian standards it just couldn’t compare.

Street scene in Little India.

Colourful Indian saris.

Four days were about the right amount of time for me. There was still much more I could have seen and done had my budget allowed. I have no regrets in stopping over, and one thing for sure it’s prepared me for what lies ahead. Australia is also an expensive country to visit so getting used to such high prices has been a learning curve which I know I’ll have to deal on my next stop which will be Melbourne.

Chinatown

Cambodia – Past and Present

Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I am confronted with this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is always a good question to ponder because it does get me thinking about the reasons for putting it on my list four times out of the nine that I have visited Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is a small country with a dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  Each time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some but by no means all. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population.

Historically all the SE Asian countries have had their problems with outside invaders, save for Thailand which has never ceded control to anyone but themselves. Thailand has a long history of invasions from its neighbour Burma (now Myanmar) but has continuously managed to keep them at bay as they have of other invaders in the past wanting a piece of their empire. In spite of numerous internal problems such as trying to build a democracy that works and learning to live with some very restrictive military governments, Thailand has successfully avoided being under the thumb of any kind of foreign domination.

This certainly has not been the case for Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Myanmar (formerly Burma) or any of the other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Singapore. Many will note that for this reason Thailand has been recognised as one of the leading developing countries, except for Singapore. The very opposite is true for Cambodia which lags behind all of them.

A bit of the country’s history can help us to understand the problems she is facing today. The first recorded history for Cambodia can be traced back to southern China with the Hunan polity followed by the Chennai people.  The Khmer empire, the most notable and powerful period of Cambodia’s history, flourished from the 9th to the 15th century in what today is known as Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After Angkor’s decline, the country lapsed into a period of hibernation resulting in being overtaken by the Siamese (Thai) and the Vietnamese who further eroded their culture. With the entrance of the Indochinese Union, it then became a French Protectorate. For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia and with their influence under the leadership of King Sihanouk, they were able to achieve their independence from France in 1953.

From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for the script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China and their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated this small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

Cambodia’s figure head king.

As late as 2008, a tribunal was established to bring to justice those who were involved in positions of authority in the murder of the estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting only those who held senior government office and who had violated international law and carried out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third, the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison, called Duch, who was handed a life long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for much debate.

So what have I witnessed on this visit to Cambodia which could be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? The most obvious one is the vast improvement in its infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh all paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit here in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. Here in Kep, from where I write this post, Route 33 A is a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely home for this past week. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for this. Improved roads means more tourists especially from China which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it’s providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

My bungalow.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years ago was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else was brought in to make this sandy beach which has proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

This is not on a Sunday!

However, the downside to this is that many of those forming the middle class are government workers whom I am told gain their positions by literally buying them. They also get substantial bonuses throughout the year which allows them to buy their big vehicles. Here is an example of  “the big C” at work which puts the country right up at the top when it comes to corruption. For more on this problem you can check out my post: http://The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talk to are eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge are still having their negative effects.

Eeven though the economy here is showing an increasing growth rate fuelled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognised contender in the Asian economy. It continues to lag far behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are signs from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there has been no real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This is the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems is easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage can be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there is apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked. I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This isn’t an easy task especially here in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows is filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream

I recently wrote about the challenges I face as a senior traveller in my post entitled How Our Changing World is Affecting Our Travel. This left some of my readers wondering if I was going to give it all up and stay at home for our Nova Scotian winters.

My answer is, “No, not yet.” There are still places to see. Travel is in my blood and my desire out weighs any challenges I will face.

In fact, my travel plans for 2018 are my most ambitious yet for I will be heading “down under” to Australia to fulfil a life-long dream.

This dream surfaced some time around fifth grade when I was introduced to this fascinating country in my geography classes. Who wouldn’t have been intrigued with the strange animals and plants of this vast country which had English-speaking people reportedly to be much like us Canadians? To top it off Australia has or did have a warm climate, gorgeous beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. What did it not have, I wondered?

In 1970 my first husband and I seriously considered migrating there, to the city of Perth. He was an avid sailor and thought this would be the perfect place for him. I wasn’t a sailor but it was Australia so I wanted to go…no question. The problem was timing. I had just returned from a year-long back packing trip to Europe… broke! I needed to get back to my teaching and make some money. Moreover, we found out just how difficult it was for us to get accepted into this vast country. If I recall correctly, I don’t think teachers were on their needs’ list, and neither were sail boat enthusiasts. Thus, that dream quietly faded away….for awhile.

As the years passed, however, the dream was revived each time I taught geography to my students as a grade six teacher, or by a TV show filmed there. Does anyone remember “MacLeod’s Daughters”? Then there was “Crocodile Dundee” and the popular detective series “Dr. Blake Mysteries”. Moreover, I was constantly running into Aussies on my travels to Thailand which only served to whet my appetite to visit there even more.

The spark that finally did it for me was the threatening eruption of Mt. Agang in Bali. I had already booked a flight to Singapore for mid March of 2018 when the first eruption occurred in September. After consulting a map, I realised that Singapore was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Australia. Here was the perfect opportunity knocking at my door. There could no longer be such excuses as how expensive this country is for a budget traveller like me. Something told me I had to do it now.

The result of all this is I have just finished making a reservation for March 16 to fly from Singapore to Melbourne. The rest of my itinerary is up for grabs. All I know at this point is that I will have a month to see as much of this vast and varied country (or continent) as money and time will allow.

As I write about fulfilling this travel dream, my endurance is being tested by the extreme cold weather and snow that has been engulfing the Ottawa/Toronto area this past week. By now I should be in the sky wending my way over to Bangkok, but I am not. My flight which was scheduled to leave at 1:40 this morning was cancelled. Thanks to the caring West Jet staff I am now re-booked to take off the same time tomorrow morning. At this time of the year it could have been much worse. I was given a voucher to take a taxi back to my daughter’s house for the night. Today has been sunny here in Ottawa…still cold at -30 degrees…but not cold enough to keep us housebound. What it did was give us that extra ‘mother and daughter’ time that we needed after a very hectic week to simply enjoy a delicious and nutritious lunch at a nearby organic restaurant and do some store snooping on Wellington Street, Ottawa’s trendy shopping area.

As we leave behind 2017 for whatever is in store for us in 2018, I can’t help but see how my last 24 hours are probably a fore taste of what is in store for my travels this coming year. There will be the inevitable challenges to face which will test me to the limit only to be followed by those good times where my faith and joy in travelling are renewed. This is my hope for the world and for everyone who reads this post. Deal with your challenges knowing that they will be followed by the good times.

Happy New Year everyone!

A typical Ottawa winter

 

With snow shovelling

 

…..and lots of fun!

 

But I’ll take this lovely beach in Thailand.

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

To escape the harsh Canadian winters of Nova Scotia, the place I call home, I do what more and more people are doing which is… to seek out some place that is warm. Florida is not the answer for me as has been the custom for many Nova Scotians in the past. For the last nine years, winters have taken me to the Far East, to such countries as Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India, and, finally, last year to South America for the first time.

When I explain to friends, old and new, why I choose to travel to far off places by myself without my husband (Hubby), I get various reactions, such as: am I worried about getting sick, do I feel safe, how do I endure the long flights, or where do I get my energy? They might then end up by saying, “I could never do it.” Before addressing these concerns from the dubious, let me digress to the events leading up to my discovery of travelling solo as a senior female.

I never planned to do this kind of travel when Hubby and I moved to Nova Scotia from the big city of Toronto in 2006. It happened gradually. We kept meeting people in Annapolis Royal…the little town nearest to where we live in Victoria Beach… who had been to South East Asia. They helped perk my interest in the possibility of going there instead of to the south where we had gone previously. To my surprise I was able to talk Hubby into testing the Asian waters. We both realised it was so much cheaper to head east rather than south. For the same amount of money as we would spend to go to Cuba and stay at a resort for a week, we could stretch out our time away in Thailand, for example, to a month or more. Heck, after our second visit we realised we could stay for three or four months and live on a much smaller budget than we ever would if we stayed home. Home meant having to heat a century old house with oil and driving two cars.

Our home in Victoria Beach.

Annapolis Royal in December

After our fourth visit to SE Asia, Hubby announced that he was tiring of this part of the world and wanted to spend his next winter in Florence, Italy, where he had lived for a while as a young man. He also had friends in England he wanted to visit. The thought of spending my winter in either of these places left me cold (no pun intended). I was going back to Thailand again, not just for its warmth, but also because I wanted to shop. If you refer to one of my previous posts you will know why shopping in Thailand is my lure. Click on this link to read: Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

Hill Tribe village in northern Thailand.

Night market in Chiang Mai

So now back to the concerns I have encountered from those who are interested in travelling solo as an older person. I say “interested” as I accept that not everyone wants to do this. We all have different ways of deriving satisfaction on our life’s journey. However, for those who would like to do it, but think it’s impossible to travel as a solo senior who is married, I want you to know it is… if you want it badly enough. You can convince your spouse or partner, if you have one, that it’s better for your relationship if you take time off from it and just trust. You can be safe if you use your common sense…this is where seniors have something that the younger set may not. You most likely won’t do anything crazy like walk around deserted streets late at night. You won’t get sick if you are careful of what and where you eat, and should you get sick there are tons of pharmacies with qualified staff and good hospitals in all the countries I have travelled to. Finally, you will survive the long trip overseas if you prepare yourself for the flight and take it easy for the first week by not eating too much spicy food and keeping a normal sleeping schedule. I have many tips for keeping in shape and staying healthy while travelling which I can address in a separate post if you want me to. For anyone who does decide to give solo travel a try, two things can happen:

  1. You will gain a thirst for more.
  2. Or if not, you will be glad you overcame any fear and just did it…once!

Either way you won’t regret it!

Fear of what disasters could happen are a huge concern for anyone starting off on a solo trip. When Hubby and I went on our separate trips in 2013, I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to be out there on my own. I could almost taste the freedom facing me. To deal with the fear factor, I started off with the familiar by travelling to Thailand first. I had friends there and was so familiar with this country that was becoming like a second home for me as Florence was for Hubby.

Viet Nam, however, was another story. My first night in Hanoi scared me to death when I was finally faced with the hoards of motorbikes and cars which seemed to be everywhere buzzing around like flies. With few traffic lights and police to direct the chaos, the Viet Namese drivers cope with a seemingly effortless charge ahead into the flow aiming for any spot that looks like a possibility. As a pedestrian, we must wait for a small gap or lull before heading out into the traffic. Then we pray the drivers see you and go around you rather than into you. I will be forever indebted to Mike and his wife, Diane, for helping me master the art of crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Their presence was a gift because having been there many times, they were happy to not only be a guide for me, but to be my dinner companions. Aware that this was my first venture to a new place on my own, they kindly took me under their wing… or tried to. I can be awfully independent at times.

Hanoi traffic

My next leg of this solo journey took me to India and Nepal. This was the most daunting part of my whole trip. Any traveller will tell you that India isn’t easy…Thailand is a breeze in comparison. I was definitely put to the test by having to endure scams, pushy males, and sickness. You will come away from India either loving or hating it. By the end, I was somewhere in between. Should the opportunity arise to return, I would. If you want to learn more about my adventures in India you can click on my post Incredible India. 

This is Kerela in South India

Nepal came much easier to me, but it still had its challenging moments, such as my encounter with a bull who didn’t like what I was wearing. You can find out more about this adventure by reading my post Adventures in Nepal.

The Annapurna Massif – part of the Himalaya range.

What I learned from this trip was that any fear you might have about travelling on your own can be overcome by simply doing it. If you don’t have friends you can meet up with, you can always find fellow travellers willing to help you out at the places you stay or eat. Moreover, don’t discount the incredible helpfulness of the locals who in almost all cases will bend over backwards to help. Not everyone is out to scam you. Even in India which probably has one of the worst reputations for devising outlandish schemes to get your money, you will find incredibly helpful people.

So what I have learned about overcoming the fear that comes with travelling on your own is to gain all the information you can about whatever it is you need to know. And, of course, what better way to gain this information than by actually doing it. You can read all the guidebooks and talk to others who have done it, but the best teacher is your own experience. You will make mistakes, things will go wrong, you will get scammed, you will get discouraged, and sometimes feel very alone. However, look at these as the ingredients that make up the experience. Keep at it and you will get better at it. Fear will be replaced with love. Through your own growing, you will learn to not only love yourself more because you have done something you wanted to do and be proud because of it, but you will also become more accepting of all those you meet up with on your travels. You will become that better person where you will have gained a more open mind and be more compassionate towards those who have less than you. You will cease taking our wonderful country we call Canada for granted. This is what travelling solo has done for me, and I am so grateful that in my senior years I can still do it.

For more thoughts on my solo travels, you can refer to Travelling Solo or Not?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

 

 

 

 

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.