Blue Orb Travel ‘Best Pick’ Destinations

Add These Often Overlooked Travel Gems to Your Itinerary This Year

          Check out some of John’s favorite places by visiting these Blue Orb ‘Best Picks’ when you travel this summer.  By clicking on the link it will take you to our full article on each travel destination.

Shrewsbury, England

          A charming little town straddling the River Severn near the border with Wales.  Located in County Shropshire, England Shrewsbury is only 170 miles from London.

The River Severn, Shrewsbury, England

The River Severn, Shrewsbury, England

Konigssee, Germany

          This hidden gem of Bavaria is one point on a small tourist triangle that also includes Berchtesgaden with it’s Eagle’s Nest and Salzburg, Austria.  Just 100 miles from Munich, Konigssee is easily accessible by train and you can walk to the lake from the train station.

The Konigssee Lake in Bavaria, Germany

The Konigssee Lake in Bavaria, Germany

Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

          This shining gem just outside the Golden Ring is 260 miles from Moscow and one of the first stops on the Trans Siberian Railway.  Located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny Novgorod is the third largest city in Russia and is home to a fabulous Kremlin and many splendid cathedrals.

Kremlin at Nizhny Novgorod

Kremlin at Nizhny Novgorod

Luang Prabang, Laos

          Located off the beaten path in the hill country of Laos and accessible only by bus or plane, Luang Prabang is well worth the trip!  This French colonial town on the Mekong River is full of old world charm, wonderful restaurants, great shopping and inexpensive hotels.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat…Saving the Best for Last

          The fabulous temple complex known as Angkor Wat has to be near the top of the list of must see destinations for most world travelers.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cambodia was without doubt the highlight of my trip to Southeast Asia.  Built between 1113 and 1150 as a Hindu temple, by the following century it had become primarily a Buddhist shrine and it remains so today.  As the largest religious monument in the world it has become a major tourist attraction, drawing close to one million international visitors each year.  In the Khmer language, Angkor Wat means ‘City of Temples’ which aptly describes this vast collection of shrines.  Angkor Wat actually refers to the main temple located on 500 acres and surrounded by a moat.  The other most-visited sites in this area include Angkor Thom with the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm with its famous tree roots engulfing part of the structure, a now familiar sight that was featured in the movie, Tomb Raider.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Getting the Most Out of Your Visit to Angkor Wat

          One could spend weeks exploring the temples, admiring the architecture and studying the history contained within the 154 square mile Angkor Archeological Park.  Whether you purchase a one day, three day or seven day pass, I recommend hiring an experienced tuk-tuk driver to guide you around the main sites.  Your driver will also be able to transport you between Siem Reap, where you will most likely be staying, and Angkor Wat, which is about three and a half miles away.  Your driver will also know the way around the park and can take you to the main temples, according to the amount of time you have.  For $40 I hired ‘Baby’ to be my tuk-tuk driver for two days.  He drove me out to the main entrance around 4:30 PM the day before my main visit where I purchased a one day ticket for $20.  The ticket was good for a quick preview that evening and all the next day.  Baby gave me a tour of the city of Siem Reap that evening and then picked me up at my hotel at 8 AM the next morning for a full day tour of the temple complex.

Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia

Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia

The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

Siem Reap

          How could you not love a town that has a ‘Pub Street’!  Siem Reap literally means ‘Defeat of Siam’, which refers to the ancient rivalry between Cambodia and Thailand.  It has now become a sprawling little city with its growth largely due to its proximity to Angkor Wat.  For most visitors to the region, Siem Reap will be your jumping off spot for your visit to the temples.  With this perfect combination of town and temples, you can enjoy a vigorous exploration of Angkor Wat during the heat of the day and then cool off with the thriving night life of Siem Reap during the evening.  The colonial architecture of Siem Reap reflects the French influence that began around the turn of the 20th century.  The town is now a tourist magnet replete with modern hotels, quaint restaurants, markets, shops and, yes, pubs!

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia at Dusk

Siem Reap, Cambodia at Dusk

Getting There and Beyond

          I was able to arrange a minivan ride at the City Center Hotel in Phnom Penh going to Siem Reap.  The five hour ride was marred only by an incident where the young lady sitting across the aisle from me held out a bag and invited me to help myself to what she was eating.  When it turned out to be fried crickets, all the passengers on the bus had a good laugh when they saw the expression on my face.  This funny episode turned out to be an ‘icebreaker’ and gave me an opportunity to meet more of the friendly people of Cambodia, some of whom are now Facebook friends.  My Phnom Penh tuk-tuk driver, Curly, had arranged for his friend, Baby, to meet me at the bus stop in Siem Reap.  Baby drove me in his tuk-tuk to the fabulous Siem Reap Evergreen Hotel, which would be my home for the next three days as I explored Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.  Be sure to check out our full report on this wonderful hotel in the next posting.  At the conclusion of my visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the hotel was able to book me on a bus to Bangkok, Thailand for $12.  Imaging traveling on a nice bus from one country to another for $12!  Alas, my three week trek through Southeast Asia would come to a close with the long flight home from Bangkok to San Francisco.

French Fried Crickets on a Bus!

French Fried Crickets on a Bus!

My Tuk-Tuk Driver at Angkor Wat

My Tuk-Tuk Driver at Angkor Wat

     

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh

          The capital city of Cambodia is located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.  Founded in 1434, Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia and home to many French colonial buildings and other architecturally significant structures.  Almost as soon as I arrived on the bus from Saigon, I was able to arrange a tuk-tuk driver for a whirlwind tour of the city and surrounding areas.  The first place we visited was the Tuol Sleng Prison (admission $2), which was formerly a high school and is now the Genocide Museum chronically the horrors of the Pol Pot regime of the late 1970s.  After a tour of the prison I climbed back in the tuk-tuk, sat back and relaxed while Curly, my driver, pedaled us out of town in the rain to visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum

          Although it was dark by the time we returned to the city after visiting the Killing Fields, Curly drove me past some of the more important sights.  We saw the Independence Monument, built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, the Royal Palace, which consists of a series of buildings established in 1866 and Wat Phnom, the mountain pagoda built in 1373.  After returning to my hotel I decided to take a walk down by the promenade along the river and mingle with the locals who were out enjoying the pleasant evening.  This is one of my favorite things to do wherever I go and it’s always a great way to experience the vibes of a new city.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia at Night

Phnom Penh, Cambodia at Night

The Killing Fields

          Between 1975 and 1979 the communist Khmer Rouge executed more than one million individuals (some estimates are as high as 2.5 million plus) and buried them in various ‘killing fields’ throughout Cambodia.  The most famous site is known as Choeung Ek outside of Phnom Penh, now a memorial to all those who were murdered during this dark period of Cambodia’s history.  Most of the victims at Choeung Ek were political prisoners held at Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh.  Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek and a Buddhist Stupa at the site holds more than 5,000 human skulls.  Further adding to the horror of this place, the young children and infants of adult victims were also killed by bashing their heads against trees, some of which are still present on the site.

Skulls in Stupa at Choeung Ek

Skulls in Stupa at Choeung Ek

           The feeling one gets visiting this infamous place is reminiscent of that which you experience when visiting the Nazi Concentration Camp of Auschwitz in Poland.  My experience at Choeung Ek was all the more chilling because my visit took place at dusk, just before closing time on a dreary, rainy day.  My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the entrance and waited outside while I walked around the memorial site.  There was almost no one else there at the time and I was alone with the 5,000 skulls looking back at me.  There was an eerie peacefulness about the place and had it not been for its horrible history, this former orchard might have been a beautiful setting.  I sat quietly with my thoughts in the tuk-tuk on the ride back to my hotel and after getting into my room it gave me the creeps to see mud from the killing fields still on my shoes.

Grave Sites at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Grave Sites at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Getting There and Getting Around

          The bus trip from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia was easily arranged through my hotel in Saigon and cost only $20.  I was picked up at the Thanh Lien Hotel at 8:30 AM by a modern, comfortable bus and arrived in the capital city of Cambodia by 3 PM.  At the border crossing Americans can purchase a visa on arrival for $25 and although it was a somewhat drawn out procedure, the bus driver helped us navigate the steps involved in getting the visa.

Bus Stopping for Customs at Vietnam-Cambodia Border

Bus Stopping for Customs at Vietnam-Cambodia Border

           On the bus I met a nice fellow from North Carolina by the name of Will Boggs who was starting a summer job as an English teacher in Cambodia and have enjoyed following his round the world trip this past year on Facebook.  After arriving in Phnom Penh, there was a passel of tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take us anywhere we wanted to go.  I lucked out when I selected ‘Curly’ as my driver and he delivered me to the City Center Hotel, which turned out to be a great place to stay.

Curly, My Tuk-Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh

Curly, My Tuk-Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh

City Center Hotel         

          The appropriately named City Center Hotel was located in the heart of Phnom Penh, within walking distance of many of the major sights as well as the riverfront.  I was able to get a nice room with private bathroom for $35, which included breakfast the next morning.  The front desk staff were friendly and helpful and assisted me in booking a minivan to Siem Reap for the next day.  The hotel was clean and safe and along with its great location and excellent value, the City Center Hotel satisfied all my requirements for an awesome accommodation.

The City Centre Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The City Centre Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Mud from the Killing Fields on my Shoes!

Mud from the Killing Fields on my Shoes!

Editorial Comment

          The kindness and friendliness of the Cambodian people you meet everywhere throughout the country belies the dark recent past which will haunt them for many years to come.  Their willingness to face straight on the horrific events of the past is a tribute to their resilience and determination to build a prosperous and peaceful county.  By transforming the former Tuol Sleng Prison into a Genocide Museum and encouraging tourists to visit the Killing Fields, the Cambodian government has gained credibility and respect on the world stage.

The Friendly People of Cambodia

The Friendly People of Cambodia

 

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

          With Vietnam well on its way to star status in the modern world, its citizens seem to be reconnecting with their colorful history and embracing the many positive aspects of the country’s past.  Perhaps that is why the original name of its largest city has slowly crept back into general usage, with ‘Saigon’ now preferred by many, particularly in the younger generation, to ‘Ho Chi Minh City’.  A tourist destination as well as a gateway city to Southeast Asia, Saigon is an eclectic mix of old and new.  This became readily apparent to me after I checked into an upper floor of my hotel not far from the architecturally stunning Bitexco Financial Tower and could hear a rooster crowing!

Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

The Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon

Sights of the City

          For someone who’s walked the cities of Paris, Budapest and Moscow, hoofing it around Saigon was a walk in the park.  Beginning my walking tour in the late afternoon and continuing into the dusk and evening I covered the major sights, including the Independence Palace, the Parisian-style People’s Committee Hall, the Revolutionary Museum and the Opera House.  I got an unexpected treat while checking out the War Remnants Museum when I ran into the visiting Austrian president’s motorcade.  And who would have thought that the Central Post Office would be an architectural wonder or that there would be a beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral in Saigon!

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

The War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Friendly Folks in a Vibrant City!

          Everywhere on my wanderings around this beautiful city I ran into friendly people.  At one point a group of four young men approached me and explained that they were college students and wanted to interview me for a school project.  We had a very friendly encounter that left a great impression on me and deepened my respect and admiration for the people of Vietnam.  As darkness fell, the lights of the city really brought it to life.  There seemed to be motor scooters everywhere, loaded with people, sometimes even a family of four, out enjoying the evening.  On my way back to the hotel I had fun watching the fishermen along the Saigon River and got a spectacular view of the Bitexco Financial Tower all lit up.  But there was one more stop to make.  What visit to any city would be complete without taking in the market scene.

New Friends in Saigon

New Friends in Saigon

The Thanh Lien Hotel

          To save time, I had taken the one hour flight on Vietnam Airlines from Da Nang Airport to Saigon, after visiting nearby Hoi An.  At the airport I was able to book a room at the Thanh Lien Hotel for $50 and after a quick taxi ride for $11, I was checking into my room by midafternoon.  The hotel was ideally located and a nice buffet breakfast was included in the price.  I had a clean, modern, well-appointed room with en suite bathroom.  The friendly front desk staff members were able to help me book a bus ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia for the following day.  The Thanh Lien Hotel had everything I expect in a hotel, including great location, friendly, helpful staff, reasonable price and a clean, safe environment.  I can highly recommend it as an awesome accommodation during your visit to Saigon, Vietnam.

Thanh Lien Hotel, Saigon

The Thanh Lien Hotel, Saigon

A Photo Tour of Saigon, Vietnam

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

Centerpiece of Vietnam

          Located midpoint between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, Hoi An is an ancient city that is on the bucket list of most visitors to Southeast Asia.  This picturesque little hamlet dates back to the 1500s when it was an important trading port, accounting for the obvious influence of Chinese and Japanese merchants apparent in the splendid architecture throughout the town.  The pleasant overnight train from Hanoi to Da Nang took almost 20 hours and cost about $45, which included a comfortable bed with sheets provided.  The ride took us through some beautiful country and provided plenty of time to relax and meet some of my fellow travelers.  We arrived in Da Nang around 3 PM the following day and I took a taxi to Hoi An for about $16.  The 20 mile drive took us past the famous China Beach area and the Marble Mountains.  When I asked the taxi driver for a recommendation, he took me to the Phuoc An Hotel, which turned out to be an excellent place to stay.  The hotel came with a bicycle and I was soon out riding around Hoi An with the big boys!

John in Hoi An, Vietnam

John in Hoi An, Vietnam

UNESCO World Heritage Site

          Even if your hotel doesn’t come with a bicycle, Hoi An is an easily walkable town for reasonably fit travelers.  Most of the important sights can be seen in a day, including museums, historic old homes, assembly halls and temples, most notably the Quan Cong Temple.  Two of my favorite sites were the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Central Market.  The shopping in Hoi An is to die for and bargain hunters will find they don’t have enough room in their packs to bring home everything they would like to purchase.  It’s especially fun to walk along the Thu Bon River promenade in the evening, enjoying the beautiful panoply of lights that illuminate this little burg on both sides of the water.  It is in this heavenly setting that you must make a momentous decision…from among the many, delightful and inexpensive cafes and restaurants, which will you choose as a place to sit and relax and have your dinner, all the while taking in the ambience of this other-worldly place.

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Descending Dragon Bay

          During your trip to Hanoi, Vietnam be sure to set aside one day to visit Halong Bay, which literally means ‘descending dragon bay’.  When you get there you’ll see why.  The unique panorama that awaits you is characterized by hundreds of limestone karst formations protruding from the water in a stunningly beautiful array.  There are many tour operators who will pick you up right at your hotel in the city for the 80 mile drive to the Gulf of Tonkin where this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located.  The two hour ride will take you through some beautiful scenery and give you a taste rural life in Vietnam.

Karst Formations, Halong Bay, Vietnam

Limestone Karst Formations, Halong Bay, Vietnam

          For about $50 I joined a tour with a great group of folks from all over the world.  I was picked up right in front of the Hoa Binh Hotel at 8:30 AM and delivered back there 12 hours later.  The package included a wonderful tour of the bay, lunch on the boat, a visit to a floating fishing village, a ride on the bamboo boats taking us through a cave into an open lagoon and a visit to the magnificent Thien Cung Cave.  Halong Bay, Vietnam was definitely one of the highlights of my sojourn through Southeast Asia and you won’t want to miss it while you’re in this part of the world.

John Taking a Break, Halong Bay, Vietnam

John Taking a Break, Halong Bay, Vietnam