Author Archives: Hugh Coles

Angkor Wat

Our rickshaw bowled along the smooth road and under a vast canopy of trees. We had left Siem Reap behind us and had entered the Angkor Park – home of the famous Angkor Wat and the many other ruined temples, which all together make up the largest religious site in the world. The forest was thick, and the road was effectively a speedway for the rickshaws that ferried tourists to and fro.

Built in the twelfth century, the Angkor settlements housed both the indigenous population and their living gods. Now however, the site stands in ruin. Conservation projects are slowly working to rebuild some of the temples, and we were anxious to explore for ourselves what we had heard so reverently described by other travellers.

As we continued on we would occasionally glimpse a stone tower or ancient wall between the trees, nothing of any serious size or substance though. Monkeys would stand sentinel on the side of the road, watching us pass with weary eyes. The monsoon rains had also begun to fall with force and the ground was turning into a deluge of mud. Not to be dissuaded our driver applied more throttle and ploughed on over the sliding ground.

Then, almost like the opening panning shot in a film, we broke out of the trees and ahead of us stood Ta Prom- the first of the main temples on our tour. We were struck with subtle awe as we climbed out of the rickshaw and approached the stone buildings. Trees and vines had exploded out of the structure and appeared to be dragging it back into the primordial. Getting closer we could see that the moss climbing across the walls had covered in part the intricate carvings which depicted the civilisation of the time.

Words cannot really explain the sense of awe that I felt as I explored the hidden temples, so I include a selection of photos that I hope do it justice.

Ta Prom 1 Ta Prom 4 Ta Prom 11

Ta Prom 9 Ta Prom 8 Ta Prom 5 Ta Prom 12

Ta Prom 10

Thankfully the rains began to subside, and hopping over puddles we made our way back to our driver and our next stop – The Bayon.

The Bayon was huge and by far one of the largest temples on site. As the rickshaw drew up by the entrance I felt more compelled to walk around the perimeter with my camera than immediately dive in. It was just that spectacular.

Bayon 1

Bayon 2 Bayon 3 Bayon 4 Bayon 5


Our final stop was to be the Angkor Wat, but on the way there, we passed alongside a long wall depicting a series of marching elephants. Where the wall met a staircase, elephant heads with long tusks were carved into the stone.

Elephant Wall 2 Elephant Wall 1

Leaving behind the elephants, we passed over a long bridge, flanked by stone men pulling on the tail of a snake. This bridge led under the elephant gate, which only a single rickshaw could traverse at a time.

Bridge 2

Up ahead the Angkor Wat appeared, a huge lake before it. Taking off on foot we crossed the causeway that led to the entrance, and into the huge complex.

Angkor Wat 1 Angkor Wat 2 Angkor Wat 3

Angkor Wat 4


Koh Rong

Our approach to the island was plain sailing. Bright sunshine brought out an emerald colour in the sea, and slowly the coast came into sight, making way for the white-sand beach and the long pier. Setting down on the beach we took a moment to appreciate our surroundings. The bay provided total shelter from the tide, and palms provided a little shelter from the intense heat. In each direction there were just a few bamboo huts and cottages, and the sound of surf filled in for any hint of civilisation.

Koh Rong Pier

We took a quick look at our map and then waved down a local to check we were headed in the right direction. Our map showed a rough track through the centre of the island which was heavy with jungle. On the other side lay our accommodation and hopefully a beach to be had all to ourselves.

We were headed to a cove set around the Robinson Bungalows, and a helpful native pointed to an obscure path just behind some nearby huts. Securing our heavy bags we began our trek, and were soon headed away from the sound of the waves and deep into the stilted cacophony of frogs and crickets, the frantic buzz-saw of the cicadas and the occasional horny shout of a gecko.

The further along the jungle path we moved, the more humid it became, until I called out to celebrate the heavy drops of rain falling all around me. To my dismay I realised that the rain was actually sweat dripping off my nose and face.

Deeper yet we travelled, and soon the path turned upwards onto a high ridge. We used trees for support and pulled ourselves along, the gloom ever increasing as we became more absorbed in the jungle. Soon mosquitos and large flies surrounded us, and we absently swiped as we stalked forwards. Up and up we climbed, stopping occasionally for a draw on our water reserves before continuing on.

At one point a Khmer man came up behind us. I tried to engage him in conversation, but speaking no English he quickly overtook and was lost in the foliage. Eventually, just as we were draining the last of our water, we made it to the top of the rise, and saw a long climb down ahead of us. The path was cut deep into the surrounding earth, but we thought little of it, keen to get to our destination.,

Finally we broke out of the jungle and emerged on a savage coast, waves beat against a rocky shore, and we paused in disbelief. We had been told that this side of the island was both much more unspoilt and much more enjoyable. The beach however was subject to vast amounts of detritus that had washed ashore, and the water was open to the elements and brutal to say the least. Slightly taken aback, we dragged ourselves up the beach and into the home of a Swiss couple who owned a set of rustic huts set just offshore, peeking out of the jungle.

Our lodgings were sparse, yet functional.  A basic hut on stilts faced onto the rough sea, its roof starting a foot above the wall. As we settled in, we began to take stock of just how wild the area really was. Spiders with huge black bodies and long dangling legs sat across webs that dominated the doorways. Lizards darted around in the peripheries of our vision, and the house cats stalked the giant jungle rats which came down to try their luck in the kitchen.

Snail Gecko

Near our room an active termite nest rose up to my chest and issued forth legions of black ant-like creatures. They moved in columns five-abreast and made for a nearby fence panel which was slowly being metamorphosed into mulch to add to their already huge volcano base.

Taking a midnight stroll down the beach we were intrigued to find an unusual track. We assumed a snake had left it on the sand, as it looked a little like a bicycle tire, but swooshing to the left and then right. Following it for some time we came across the culprit- a hermit crab. As we shone our torch on it, the creature retreated into its shell, but after a few moment came out and continued its pilgrimage down the sand.

Hermit Crab

It was around this time that the monsoon really started for us. A large peal of thunder would mark the arrival of some heavy rain drops- fair warning to get inside, and then moments later the sky would open and torrential rain started pouring down.

For several days we sat in the bungalow’s common room, playing chess and looking out at the rough sea and soaked beach. Our hosts seemed happy with the onslaught, assuring us that it was better to have water than none- as is often the case on the island, but we disagreed, longing for the sun.

When the rain broke one morning, we packed our bags and set-off for the sheltered side of the island, hoping that the journey across the jungle stretch would be easier a second time around. The previous paths that had been cut deep into the earth turned out to be rivers at this point, so we had to drag ourselves back up the ridge, this time against the flow of water!

The other side of the island was much less severe, and as the rains cleared up a little, we enjoyed another few days before heading back to the mainland. Koh Rong marked the closest we had come to real nature in our travels so far, and although we were stoic in the face of insect adversity, I don’t think either one of us in in a rush to get back into the jungle.

Aerial Bombardment

Today we emerged from our hotel expecting the typical downfall of heavy thunder-rain.

Amazingly the sun was out, and for the first time in a week, we left our jackets behind and enjoyed the sun-dappled roads of Siem Reap. Moving between coffee shops and restaurants, we ended up in a Japanese place for dinner.

As soon as the sun set however, we were struck from all sides by a plague of crickets. Green ones, black ones, tiny micro-crickets and ones the size of cockroaches launched themselves at us from all sides. They swooped down from above, and leapt up from below, pinging off our heads and climbing over our shoulders.

Thankfully there are worse creatures out here, and we took these in our stride. The way I saw it, if they were going to celebrate a nice day, then so was I.

A few beers later, and the only worry was keeping the little buggers out of my glass!

One of many

Kep and Minibus Madness

Feeling bored and a little disappointed with Phnom Penh, we booked a bus south to the coast with a firm called Giant Ibis. A roomy and pleasantly chilly bus collected us from our hotel, and after a few more pick ups, we were on the road toward the coast.

Many people had suggested Kep as a rustic chill out, and a little research recommended us a French-run lounge bar, to stay at for a few days. Unfortunately the businesses that are run by expatriates, seem – more often than not, to be there only to support their permanently stoned existence, rather than provide for the traveller.

Rooms were filthy and a problem with the plumbing meant we were stunk out early in the morning. Mozzie nets were torn, and for the price we expected a lot more. The staff seemed more intent on lounging around socialising, which we should have been doing, rather than having to hassle them.

Kep was nothing special, fairly grubby along the front we weren’t really taken with it. Even so, it still afforded some nice views out to sea. Disheartened with our accommodation we booked the first bus out of there, ignoring advice to avoid local buses in favour of foreign run firms.

Our driver turned out to be a lunatic. Twenty minutes out into the countryside, he took two calls on two different phones at the same time! This led him to use his elbows to steer the minibus which was screaming in second gear. The other passengers looked on in shock and silence, so Nicole and I shouted at him to put his phones away.

Our angry outburst shocked him into dropping his phones on the floor, and for the next ten minutes he ranted from the front seat, no doubt cursing us in Khmer.

Finally we jumped out at Sihanoukville, and strode away vowing not to take local buses again.

Vietnam Retrospective

Looking back on Vietnam, I am amazed at just how much we were able to see and do in such a short time. We started by stomping around Hanoi’s time-worn roads, visiting coffee shops and wartime palaces before moving on to the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay and the thick jungle and rolling hills of Cat Ba island.

Next our journey took us south along the coast before we arrived in Hue. This city is placed on the Perfume River and was just south of the DMZ in the war. The Citadel there was damaged badly by bombing runs but recent renovations allowed us to enjoy the few buildings remaining.

Hue Citadel Steps Hue Citadel Grounds

We stayed in the cheekily named Google Hotel (lots of Asian hotels and restaurants use names like Facebook Grill, or Myspace Tower) where I was treated to free beers all night as long as I bought a meal. Bargain! It was here that an odd waiter took to serenading us every breakfast time, with a rendition of ‘The wind beneath my wings’. After a few days of this I think he sensed our bemusement, and moved onto some fresh tourists.

We pressed on to Hoi An – a beautiful town poised on the mouth of a river. The old buildings and wooden vessels had a definite charm, and we enjoyed several days of walking the narrow roads and exploring the many small shops offering a variety of local arts and crafts. The food and drink here was a notch above the rest, and we met up with Nicole’s sister Lynne and her boyfriend Andy for a change of pace and relaxation.

Hoi An Riverfront

Hoi An is very much a tourist town, the locals dress in traditional wear, and some artsy businesses have started up. One particular favourite was a shop that sold hundreds of scale models of wooden ships, all built to exacting standards. We spotted the HMS Victory and regaled the shop attendant with news that we used to live next to the real life ship.

As we were walking back to our hotel, a voice called out my name. I looked over and a classmate that I used to sit next to during Biology lessons during senior school was sat having a few beers outside of his hotel. Amazed at the remote chance of this, we stopped and spoke for a while.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and many people come here to have suits made. For as little as $100 you can get a tailored suit and quality increases up to about $300. Andy had planned ahead specifically for this, and made a bee-line for a tailor of notable repute.

This town is on the World Heritage list, and the locals definitely make the most of this, with prices set much higher than elsewhere in Vietnam. Even so, I would happily return some day to soak up the atmosphere once more.

Hoi An Riverfront 4 Hoi An Riverfront 5 Hoi An Riverfront 2 Hoi An Riverfront 3

Hoi An River Lady Hoi An River Man

After bidding farewell to Lynne and Andy, we took the train south to Nha Trang. This beach paradise has been somewhat let down by rapid development in the town. Massive high-rise hotels tower over the long beach, and the sound of hammers and drills fill the air, sometimes drowning out the crash of waves. Whilst the beach was pleasant, I wouldn’t go back.

From Nha Trang we took a sleeper train down to Saigon. After reunification the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City but the people in the south still call it Saigon.

Saigon was the polar opposite of Hanoi. A modern city; it was also very busy. Wide avenues replaced narrow streets and luxury shops lit up the city at night. Nicole and I took the opportunity to visit the Saigon Saigon Bar at the top of the Hotel Caravelle for a drink one evening, and spent an hour looking out over the city. This bar was where all the war correspondents used to drink; far enough from the bombing targets but close enough to see the action across the river.

View from Saigon Saigon

We also looked around the Reunification Palace, which used to be the seat of power in the south, before the north stormed the grounds with tanks, an event that marked the handing over of power at the time. Under the palace lay the bunker and command centre. This made for an interesting sight, and meant we had seen both of the authoritative desks in the country during the war.

The South's Command Room

The South’s Command Room

The North's Command Room

The North’s Command Room

Before leaving Saigon we happened across our new American friends, Eric and Diana, sat at one of the little cafes on the side of the road. These cafes operate out of people’s front rooms, a patch of lino covers the pavement and hosts a load of small red stools or cushions. We spent the evening drinking thirty pence beers.

Overall Vietnam was probably my favourite country so far. The people are both friendly and accommodating, but also take no nonsense. They have a fierce independence and the country is moving quickly into the modern world. It’s not as developed as Thailand, but has that great mix of old and new. Despite the frantic nature that inhabits most of Asia, I still found plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the atmosphere in the many excellent coffee shops. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

A Harrowing Experience

Today we took a trip to the Saigon War Remnant Museum.

This large open-plan building exhibits both armaments and photographs taken from the American war. Outside the front of the building were examples of the various war machines that rolled across the country. Howitzers, tanks, helicopters and planes all bristled with long barrels and an uneasy silence extended inside the building where visitors viewed the exhibits.

The experience was quite appalling. The photos showed the elements of war which people are used to glossing over or ignoring. There was the usual propagandist rhetoric on each signboard, which spelled out the crimes of the aggressors and the valour of the people’s army, but more to the point, the photos themselves showed indefensible horrors. GIs posed in front of decapitated bodies and the corpses of children; villages were set to torch by flame-throwing tanks, the ravages of napalm were detailed on the victims and by the time we had walked around that room I felt both numb and sick.

The next room showed the repercussions that stemmed from the use of Agent Orange.  Originally intended as a defoliant which would help expose the jungle, it was used as a chemical weapon throughout the war. A series of challenging photos showed the children that had been born after their parents had been exposed, and as result, exhibited severe deformities such as dwarfism, paraplegia, being born without eyes and mental illnesses such as attempting to chew and swallow anything to hand. We were both shocked to see in the middle of the exhibit, a tank filled with formaldehyde which preserved a collection of mutated foetuses. This was a little too much and we left the museum having seen enough horror for one day.

Vietnamese Dong


The Dong currently stands at 35,000 to a pound. Therefore it is fairly typical to withdraw 2,000,000 (the maximum allowed) from a cashpoint when we run low!

Denominations higher than 5000 are made from a polymer rather than cotton, and have a small window in each note. Every note features the face of uncle Ho, and the reverse shows a selection of national monuments and rural scenes.

I much prefer the plastic notes as they stay clean, don’t really break, and just feel nicer than the older sort. I’m looking forward to 2016 when we start getting plastic notes in the UK.

Cat Ba Island

Travelling east from Hanoi we arrived in Ha Long Bay where we chartered a boat to take us on a tour. The boat weaved in and out of a few of the many hundred limestone karsts which give the bay it’s Unesco World Heritage status and distinctive look. It was quite overcast, so the waters were not as emerald as the postcards like to show but the area was stunning nonetheless.

Ha Long Bay Karsts Ha Long Bay Karsts 2 Ha Long Bay Karsts 3 Ha Long Bay Karsts 4

The boat was functional, and lacked the romance of the traditional junk boats of which we saw very few. I think that they are reserved for the tourists with the most money to splash. Still, we got to spend an afternoon passing between the towering cliffs and alighted for a quick tour of a massive cave within one of the karsts.

Our Boat Inside the Cave Rock Formation Rock Formation Inside Karsk

Setting off from the cave, we continued past small fishing boats and further into the maze of limestone rocks. There are so many karsts, that there is barely any tide, even though the bay faces out into the sea. As luck would have it a huge bird of prey flew past and I managed to get a shot in, capturing it mid-flight. Then, before we knew it, we were pulling into the small wharf at the top of Cat Ba island- where we planned to spend the next few days.

Bird of Prey in Flight

Travelling through Cat Ba was like reliving the first time I watched Jurassic Park as a child. Rolling hills thick with forest surrounded us on all sides, and a single road cut through this unspoiled terrain. Buffalo would call in the distance, and we took to calling them triceratops just for fun. Nicole and I hired a motorcycle and set off into the core of the island. The frenzied sound of crickets and cicadas surrounded us at all times.

Take a look at the photosphere below, you can click around it to see all around!

From one of the nearby jetties we hired a kayak for a day, and took to the waters, paddling through the floating village just off the coast. Residents would look up as we passed and throw us a wave or a smile, and dogs would run up and down the interlinked flotillas as their masters prepared for, or cleaned up from the fishing expeditions that left in dirty motorboats or traditional wooden boats.

Nicole Paddling Toward Floating Village Floating Village

On the island we made friends with a couple who were visiting from California. Erik and Diana had arrived with climbing ropes and were determined to conquer the local rock climbs- for which Cat Ba is famous, and to also try a sport called deep water soloing. The idea is to climb up one of the limestone karsts without ropes, and when suitably high, throw yourself away from the cliff and into the deep water below. They kindly offered to take us along, but as neither of us particularly like heights we decided to enjoy their company along with dinner and beer instead.

Sunset from Cat Ba