A weekend adventure motor biking around the mountainous province of Ha Giang Vietnam. 1000 metres above sea level Ha Giang boarders the southern Yunnan province of China. At last count over 60% of Vietnams hill tribe minorities call Ha Giang home, making it a culturally diverse and naturally beautiful destination to explore. There I met with local men and women on the markets and at their homes whom took great pleasure and pride in adorning me with their costumes and customs. Reading time 13 mins or scroll down to the bottom for my travel tips and advice on Ha Giang.
“HA GIANG”, “HA GIANG” I heard the guy yelling in my direction. I woke up to realise that there was only myself, the driver and bag boy left on the coach. I got down from my bunk bed, gathered my belongings and stepped out onto a flood lit derelict construction site. Wicked!! I sarcastically thought to myself, time to jump into action and figure out what to do next. It’s 4:30am. I hear sounds of chattering over the wall ahead and see an exit leading out onto a road. Looking like a rabbit in the headlights, I sense the local men sat outside the station are laughing at my expense. I hear a guy wolf whistle which instantly puts me on tenterhooks, Vietnamese men don’t normally do that, I thought. Another “wit whooo” comes my way and I’m feeling really uneasy. I look left and right for my friend Esteban, “Wit whooooo…..DONNA!” I breathe a sigh of relief, it was him all along.
Ha Giang City is No Sapa
I spend my first day in Ha Giang City just chilling out with some friends who are living there teaching English. They were working all weekend and I was hesitant to travel up into the mountains on my own. For one I don’t think I would get that far and I felt a bit paranoid about getting lost or in an accident. As a solo female traveller and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I read online and my friends confirm that there is a guy in town that offers motorbike tours, normally for 3 or 4 days. So I set off to convince Jonny Nam Tran to take a day out of his normal adventurous schedule to chaperone/babysit me for a day. As I wondered around I realize Ha Giang City is nothing like Sapa. In Sapa everyone is a “Del Boy“. You can’t go to the toilet without someone asking you if you want to do a homestay, go on a trek or buy a bracelet, bag or blanket. Elaborately dressed Hmong and Dao women with children strapped to their backs line the streets with handmade ethnic textiles, crafts and jewellery. Coaches, buses and motorbikes wizz through the busy streets as tourists sip on their lattes in the French cafes overlooking the chaos. It’s full on, but at least you know you’re in the right place. Ha Giang is not set up for tourism at all, I only saw a couple of very basic hotels, cafes and convenience stores. Getting around to see the sights would not to be that easy without Jonny. No one is trying to sell me anything, no one gives a crap that I am there, and from what I can tell there is nothing to do apart from make my plans to head for the hills.
Occupied by monks and monkeys, and surrounded by tropical forests and flourishing gardens, Siem Reap in Cambodia is famously home to some of the most mesmerising archeological architecture in the world.
The UNESCO protected Angkor world heritage site houses the astonishing ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire. Dating back to the 9th Century the site covers a colossal 400sq kilometers and is literally littered with temples and Tuk-tuks. I had 3 memorable days of meeting musical monks, learning to spin silk with local artisans at the Angkor Silk Farm and temple trekking.
I fell in love with it’s colourful and cheery people, fascinated by the meticulous attention to detail of the dramatic masonry, and got lost in the wondrous awe of the diverse ancient architecture. Siem Reap is hand’s down my favourite destination so far, lets see why…. Reading time 10 mins.
Ankor Silk Farm Siem Reap
On day 3 I visited the Artisans of Angkor Silk Farm. As educational centers go it’s pretty well organised and hands on. You can book a free tour on arrival or just walk around and the super friendly staff in each section will explain about silk worm cultivation. You get to go to the mulberry bush plantations where the silk worms traditionally live and feed. Learn about the hibernation and incubation cycle. See them being boiled alive 🙁 and even have a go (i specifically requested this) at removing the silk thread from the cocoon and spinning silk like a real life spinster! A life long ambition of mine. After that you can read all about natural dying ingredients before seeing the silk woven into luxurious brocades on the hand looms. There is even an exhibition of traditional Cambodian silk textiles and costume history. Boom! What more could a cultural fashion and textiles lecturer want? I highly recommend this place.
Before the crack of dawn, there is 4am. This is the time your alarm will go off if you want to see the sun rise behind the magnificent silhouette of the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat. What you don’t want to do, is drink a skin full the night before (just saying). It was my birthday and to celebrate I booked a long awaited weekend from Hanoi to Siem Reap. My friend and I arranged a Tuk-tuk to collect us at 4:30am. It was pitch black and surprisingly very cold driving to the entrance of Angkor Archeological Park which was about 25 minuets away from the city centre.
When we arrived I was naively shocked by how many people were there. Hundreds of Tuk-tuk drivers, motorbikes, coaches, tour groups, families and backpackers, all pushing in line to get their entrance permit. We arrived at Angkor Wat with just enough time to find a good spot for sunrise. The energy was electric with the anticipation of seeing the building shrouded in darkness in the near distance. Known as the 7th wonder of the world, nothing can really prepare you for just how beautiful it is, maybe I’m romanticising over my memories but shear scale of Angkor cannot really be described.
Built by King Suryavarman II the monument was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It’s outer walls are ornately decorated with stone carvings of stories, myths and legends from life time lived long ago. The design itself is meant to represent the cosmic world and the universe on earth. The five peaks in the centre of the building correspond to the five peaks of the mountain Meru located in the Himalayas in India, and the 200 meter wide moat is surrounded by flooded gardens, ponds and rivers to symbolise the ocean. It took over 30 years to construct and spans over 500 aches.
The park is practically impossible to explore by foot and at $20 per day walking would not be the most economical option either. We had a great Tuk-tuk driver who spoke fluent English and seemed really proud to explain and accompany us around the sights. Temple trekking in Siem Reap was one of the most surprising and impressive experiences that I had seriously under estimated. “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” right? Believe it or not (for those at home) that’s how it sometimes feels traveling in South East Asia. People become desensitised through over exposure of everything being amazing all the time. This is fondly referred to in backpacker land as being “templed out”. But NOT in Siem Reap. Every site is completely different. Competition was fierce as each Khmer King had his own memorable mark to make in place of the previous ruler. The diversity of the environment, the design aesthetics, the style of architecture, the stone, the colour, and the craftsmanship is all different, making you feel like Christopher Columbas with every new site explored.
Although Angkor was built as a place of Hindu worship in the 12th century, the grounds have been recycled over the centuries to accommodate different religious faiths of the ruling king of the time. Currently enclosed within the gardens of Angkor Wat today is a working Buddhist monastery. It was here wondering around I fell completely in love with the kind nature, cheery but peaceful ambiance of both Cambodia and Buddhism.The sweet smell of incense burned gently in the air, and there was a faint sound of wind chimes and mantras being chanted in the distance. Everywhere you turned there was a beautiful kaleidoscope of rainbow coloured paintings, fabric, decorations and shrines, all in honour of Buddha and his teachings.
Set back from the main drag, there was a communal tea room where monks were playing traditional Cambodian musical instruments and welcoming passing tourists to participate. Being the musical misfit that I am, I gladly took part in embarrassing myself just for the experience of having a go and spending a bit more time in their beautiful environment.
Cambodian Calamity Concluded
A long weekend in Siem Reap was a hard pushed escapade to fit it all in, but I’m so glad I did it. Sometimes we/me can put things off waiting for the right time to do it all at once. Just arriving in Cambodia for this trip was a personal victory for me. In 2011 I had flown into Bangkok and travelled directly to the Thai Cambodian boarder with high hopes of spending a 3 weeks gallivanting around on my first solo adventure. However this didn’t pan out. As I presented my passport to the boarder control officer, the page with my visa attached painstakingly fluttered out and landed on the floor. “You no come Cambodia. You go Bangkok and see you embassy”. Flabbergasted, confused and gutted, I returned to Bangkok and spent 3 days in and out of the British embassy. With an emergency visa in hand my Cambodian expedition had finished before it had even got off the ground, my options were to go home or stay in Thailand. I chose the latter and dedicated my remaining time to traveling Thailand, a previously shunned option.
This trip to Cambodia was just a sweet snapshot of what the country has in store for me. In 2014 I hitch hiked from Thailand to Cambodia on Christmas day to Koh Rong Island, that was an incredible journey but not really suitable content for this blog. On my way back to Hanoi I stopped in Siem Reap City and cycled my way about town taking snapshots of the local street style fashion. My experiences thus far in Cambodia have challenged and inspired me on both a personal and professional level. I’m so looking forward to going back in 2015 and exploring the full potential the country has to offer.
Has anyone else had a planned adventure stopped in it’s tracks and had to adopt a new strategy? If so i would love to hear about what happened in the comments below.
Carrie Parry How Silk is made fibre to fabric
Youtube Silk Farm Cambodia: This is how silk is made
Artisans of Angkor Angkor Silk Farm
Tourism Cambodia Angkor Wat
UNESCO Angkor World Heritage Site
Round the world traveler Angkor Archaeological Park