Fall Break

Last week, CIEE gave students a ten day break and we all took this opportunity to get out of not only Khon Kaen but explore beyond Thailand. We all split off into a variety of groups, all looking for something different from our break. Some relaxing in Bali and the Philippines, some doing a week-long yoga retreat in Cambodia, seeing the Great Wall of China, traveling up Japan or just enjoying the beaches of Thailand. Zenya and I decided to spend the ten days busing around Cambodia and Vietnam.

Zenya and I started off the trip with a bus from Bangkok to Cambodia. We arrived in Siem Reap in the evening and took a tuk tuk to a hostel. We agreed beforehand that we would approach this trip as “we’ll figure it out as we go” so we didn’t book any hostels or tours beforehand. After dinner we went to explore the city and were surprised by how exciting it was and the liveliness of pub street. So much so we didn’t go to bed until 2 a.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

the lively start to pub street in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat is a temple just outside of Siem Reap and is one of the largest religious sites in the world. We walked through the outer wall while it was still dark, not yet getting to see the true scale of it all. Even though we were with a crowd for sunrise, it was quiet. We sat by the reflection pools and watched the skies turn from indigo blue to a cotton candy blue and pink, as the sun slowly showed the magnitude of the temple. After the sunrise, Zenya and I entered the temple and walked through the many chambers, towers, courtyards and galleries and saw all of the symbolism that Angkor Wat is build upon. Angkor Wat is just one part of the much larger ancient city of Angkor. We spent the rest of the day exploring the different but just as impressive other parts of Angkor.

From Siem Reap, Cambodia we took an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The first day we went to the War Remnants Museum on the Vietnam War. It was thought provoking but also harrowing due to the graphic stories and images of prisoners of war, agent orange victims and war crimes. We spent almost 4 hours at the museum and it could have it’s own  blog post. That night we went on a bar crawl with our hostel and experienced a little bit of what makes Ho Chi Minh a worthwhile visit; the nightlife. The next morning before leaving for Hanoi, we were looking for something to do and ended up going to the Saigon Lookout Tower and got a view of the city then walked to see the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Our flight (we would have loved to take the bus up the length of Vietnam but time didn’t allow that) landed in Hanoi that night. We were in Hanoi this time just to sleep and took a bus the next morning to Sa Pa, in the northwest of Vietnam. We spent our two days here walking around the small hillside town and doing a trekking tour. Being used to Thailand’s heat and humidity, I was wrapped up in blankets in the evening when it got down to 60 degrees. The 16 km trekking tour took us through the rice paddies, three villages and we learned how the locals cultivate the land on the side of the mountains.

From Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay we took another overnight bus to Ha Long. The bus got in at 3 a.m. and as Zenya and I walked half asleep to a hostel we laughed and noted that traveling in Southeast Asia is not for everyone. The next day we took a boat tour to Ha Long Bay. It is a place that I have wanted to see for a long and the beauty exceeded my expectations. The bay is scattered with more than 3,000 limestone cliff islands with rain forests growing on top. Even though the weather was overcast that day, the clouds gave the area a mysterious feel as we kayaked around and explored a cave in the bay.

That night when we were walking around to find dinner we realized that Ha Long is a very quiet town. But when we finished our dinner at a hostel restaurant, a group of Brits invited us over to play king’s cup. We ended up having an unexpected fun night in Ha Long, filled with card games, a failed attempt to find a karaoke bar and then ordering fries and more beers at a random street food restaurant.

Some of the British friends we met

On Saturday we got to Hanoi, the last part of our travels. Zenya and I explored the streets of Old Quarter and immediately felt immersed with the locals. This was a nice change because Ho Chi Minh felt geared towards tourists. We enjoyed out last night of break at the hostel playing fusball, beer pong and then going on a bar crawl.

entrance to Old Quarter in Hanoi

It’s taken me almost a week to get around to writing this post because I’ve been reflecting on all of my experiences in those quick 10 days. While I wrote a general overview of my travels, the real excitement from traveling is in the details – the people you meet, the unexpected plans and realizing the reality of a destination is far better than your imagination. This trip gave me that unique, almost indescribable “traveling feeling”. It’s a new open mindedness,  a sense of freedom, curiosity and awe. Multiple times throughout the week, Zenya or I would abruptly say some variation of, “Did that actual happen?”

Some of the traditional food I tried throughout Vietnam and Cambodia

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