A Travellerspoint blog

Temple on the Mountain

Ninh Binh


Sa Pa was such a fantastic introduction to Vietnam. Stets and I had our 28 day Visa in hand, well technically glued to our passport, and so we decided to use every single day and travel from the extreme north to the extreme south. From Ha Noi, we loaded on a bus and headed for Ninh Binh, a tiny town 4 hours south of the city. We stepped off the bus, walked to a guest house, unloaded our rucksacks and headed out to explore. The town was very small but jam packed with people. We rented a couple motorbikes and set off to find a river cruise we had heard some great things about. The cruise was on a tiny canoe-like boat with just the three of us (Stets, Steve, and I) and our two rowers. It was a hot day and the boat trip was pretty touristy. The scenery was beautiful. We passed pigs lounging in the shade on the river's bank, mountain goats watching us from the steep limestone karsts, and Buddhist burial sights that looked like artwork. We cruised around for about 45 minutes. Just as we were about to disembark, our rowers started asking us for a tip. I was pretty shocked. Here we are, in sight of the dock, wondering if they would hold us ransom on this boat until we handed over more cash. We had already paid for the tour and bought our rowers a cold drink and a snack! Luckily, we convinced them to row to the dock where they continued to yell "tip, tip, tip!". We unloaded as fast as possible and walked away feeling a bit disappointed, to say the least. We shook off the negative feelings, climbed on our bikes and set out to see the town before sunset.

Our second day in Ninh Binh was also spent on motorbikes. We cut off the main road and took a trail that had a sign for fishing! Of course! When you travel with Stetson T. Wiley, you cannot pass a single river, lake, fishing sign, or fish farm without stopping! We were in awe of the landscape and the people we passed. Stunning. After driving for a bit, we came out on the main road...no luck finding the fishing as advertised, but a beautiful drive nonetheless. Continuing on our way we came upon an enormous temple on a mountain. The rain was looming ahead so we decided to stop and see what the temple was all about. We parked the motorbikes, bought a ticket for entrance, and hopped on a tram car set for the temple. What a great decision. This temple was huge. Human sized Buddhas in every position lined the staircases. Hundreds of smaller Buddhas covered the walls behind them. As we approached the half way mark of our climb, we entered an enormous temple. After exploring inside, we set off to march to the top. At the top we found another large temple and an enormous Buddha looking out over the town. We could see for miles. The sense of peace surrounding this holy place is indescribable. After resting for a while at the top, we started the long hike down. About half way, we came to a gentleman playing his guitar and singing some beautiful music. We stopped to listen and realized he was blind. He was singing in order to make a living. We sat in silence for a while, letting the music and the scene move around and into our hearts. We gave the man some money, thanked him for his beautiful sound and continued down and out to finish out our time in this tiny town.

Posted by SMWiley 23:30 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Happy Water

Sa Pa, Vietnam

View Map of our Journey on SMWiley's travel map.

This is Vietnam! Stets and I landed in Ha Noi and explored for a couple of days while awaiting the arrival of his father, Steve. Upon his arrival, we high tailed it to the mountains in the north, heading to a town called Sa Pa. How did we get there you ask...by train of course! And what an experience!

We boarded the train early in the morning and prepared for a ten hour ride through the city and into the mountains. Upon boarding, we saw that our windows, in the coach marked for foreigners, had cages on them and were difficult to see through. We wanted to see the changing landscape so we explored the different cars to see where the best seat would be. We found that the coach behind us had hard wooden seats but big beautiful clear windows. We picked up our breakfast and moved. The train had many stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way. One man took a special liking to the foreigners who decided to sit themselves in a coach meant for locals (which we were unaware of at the time).

Here is my description of the man on the train:
Red teeth (from chewing betel nut). Turtle in a can. No personal bubble. Sitting so close. Unaware of the discomfort caused. So curious of these American men. Maps, books, bracelets. Stets gave him a bracelet and he lit up. Wanted more. Beer too early in the morning. Happy and content.

It was a long ride, but we made it. And from the minute we stepped off the train, we knew it was worth the ride. Sa Pa is beautiful. All around are mountains and rice terraces. Local woman smiling so big at us. We trekked down into a village very close to town and saw a waterfall rushing so powerfully it took your breath away. That is how we spent our afternoon, attended by a local girl by the name of Xua (sure). She is 16 and wanted to practice her English so she accompanied us through the village of Cat Cat and educated us on the ways of life up in the mountain villages. We hiked for about three or four hours this day and at the end, my heart was full of love for this young lady and her country and my lungs were filled with fresh mountain air.

Our time in Sa Pa was spent engaging in two separate adventures. The first was a motorbike ride through the mountains. We rode on the highest highway in Vietnam and passed the tallest mountain in the country, Fannsipan. We passed through several small villages, saw many rushing waterfalls, went from the cold temps of the high mountains to the extreme heat of the rice paddy valleys. We stopped for hard boiled eggs and beer at one local village and the heat of the day led us to a dip in one of the most clear rivers I have ever laid eyes on. The water was refreshingly cool and just far enough from the road that you felt a sense of seclusion that is hard to find in this populous country. It was a day I will never forget.

Our second adventure was a two day trek, once again through rice terraces, small villages, and mountains. We started this adventure right in the heart of town. As we set out, we realized that some women of the village, with their baskets on their backs, were following right along with us. Our own entourage. They would ask us questions; What is your name? Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have? And on and on and on. It was a bit awkward at first to have the woman following us so close and to stand out like a sore thumb wherever we went, but we actually got used to it and set into a comfortable pace. I wondered why these women, dressed in their heavy village garb, would want to follow us on a blistering hot day. I turned and smiled at one of the girls and bam! She asked "please buy something!" At that point I realized they were following in order to sell their hand made items to us and once we warmed up to them, they were insistent. We held them off through the morning but knew by the time we stopped for lunch we would have to address the wants of these women in order to get them off our tail! After hiking for about three hours through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever scene, we stopped at a village restaurant for some pork fried rice. Once our bellies were full, we invited the women over to show us their items. We bought something from each women and said good bye to two out of three. The third woman, who was in her mid 50s continued along with us as she did not have enough money to afford a motorbike and therefore would have to walk home that afternoon. As we continued on, we passed hillside rice terraces that were unbelievably beautiful, water buffalo soaking in the cool mud, chickens, piglets, and little kids yelling "hello!". After another three or four hours, we arrived at the home where we would spend the night. It was a home to a family of the village tribe known as the Red Dao. The home was rustic, primitive, and absolutely beautiful. We sat for a short while to recuperate from the day and then set out to explore the grounds of the home. We found that the family had a garden of corn, rice, and pumpkins. They also owned pigs and chickens. As we wondered around, the neighbor invited us over to see the new home she was building and also show us her rice fields. Se was so proud of her land and home. We headed back inside where the women of the house were gathered in the kitchen preparing our dinner. Stets jumped right in to help and was rolling egg rolls as the women critiqued his cooking skills. They invited us to take a hot medicinal herb bath and of course we said yes! They boiled water over a huge fire in the kitchen and filled up wooden barrels also adding berries, wood chunks, and herbs. It was heavenly. We soaked for about 15 minutes, dried off, and feeling sleepy, headed to the dining room for dinner. The table was set for a king! Tomato tofu, pork sautéed with onions, fried egg rolls, steamed rice, chicken, morning glory cooked with garlic, and next to every plate was a shot glass filled with a clear liquid. Happy water! We were told if you drink enough of this homemade rice wine, you couldn't help but be happy. The wine was extremely potent and makes even a seasoned drinker cringe. With full bellies and love in our hearts, we headed for bed.

We awoke on our second day to the rooster crowing and sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the wood of the home. Breakfast consisted of bananas, crepes, and tea. We said our goodbyes and thank yous and headed out for more stunning mountain views. Today, we packed a picnic lunch. We hiked for three hours and came upon our picnic site, which was a concrete water drain that dumped water into the rice paddies. We sat and were given a baguette which we stuffed with tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, and happy cow cheese. As I was about to take my first bite, the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. Before I knew it, the water was flowing into my shorts at a rapid pace! We stood, finished our sandwiches and headed out to meet our van that would take us back to Sa Pa. We made our way to the train station and boarded the overnight train back to Ha Noi.

Sa Pa has given us memories that we will never forget. This is a must see, magical place in Vietnam. Happy water, happy people, beautiful landscape.

Posted by SMWiley 02:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

An island within an island

Tuk Tuk, Samosir Island, Sumatra, Indonesia

View Map of our Journey on SMWiley's travel map.

A last minute decision to fly to the sixth largest island in the world proved to be a good one. Sumatra is well known for its earthquakes and volcanic activity, in the two weeks prior to our arrival there were three earthquakes, one being felt where we were going. In 2004 the an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 shook the north tip of the island, sending tsunamis across the region and eventually killing over 300,000 people. We weren't going to let a shaky ground deter us from yet another island getaway.

We landed in Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra around 8 am. We jumped on a bus headed inland to the worlds biggest volcanic lake, Lake Toba. After two minutes on the bus my body was tensed up and I was clutching to the seat in front of me with white knuckles. The bus driver apparently thought we were in the Indy 500. We spent 40% of the ride in the opposite lane passing cars and motor bikes, forcing oncoming traffic off the road and narrowly missing other buses. Another 40% of the ride was spent in the middle of the road jerking back and forth looking for a small gap in the traffic so we could speed up and pass again. The other 20% was pent in our lane honking at the cars in front of us trying to get them to move. We eventually made our way up into the mountains where we stopped and picked up kids getting out of school! We were now packed shoulder to shoulder sweating with our knees jammed into the exposed springs of the seat in front of us. I was too terrified to realize that my shirt was soaked in sweat, an air-con private mini-bus would have been a better idea. We eventually made it to the lake and ran off the bus in joy. The ATM would only allow us to pull out 2,000,000 Indonesian rupiah, the equivalent of $200. We heard there weren't any ATMs on the island in the middle of the lake so we were hoping that we could make it last. After all we were only going to be there for 4 days.

The ferry ride to Samosir island (island on lake Toba) was a short and beautiful cruise. We quickly realized that the weather was crisp and a little bit cool. At least it felt cool after being in the heat of Thailand and Malaysia. The scenery was stunning and the water was clean, clear, and a beautiful deep blue. The guesthouses were lined with diving boards and beach chairs with people lounging and enjoying to sun. We hopped off and walked the area of Tuk Tuk looking for our humble abode. We found our spot, the Samosir Cottages. The room had a good view of the lake and was $15 a night. The food was decent at the guesthouse and the staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful. On Wednesday and Saturday nights they performed a traditional dance of the Batik people. It was a mellow dance with a slight bend of the knee and funky hand gestures. Megan and I were called upon to share a dance with the girls up front. We were lucky the dance was easy to mimic, we had a blast and laughed the entire way back to our seats. The stay at Samosir Cottages was pleasant except for the second night there Megan was up all night to the sound of something scurrying back and forth along the wall behind our heads. It was a loud sound and we assumed that it had to be a large rat. The next day we switched rooms and slept in peace until our last night. We packed peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches for our early departure and woke up to a critter inside of the bag rustling around. Megan, a little timidly peered into the bag and a lizard jumped out and landed on the wall and ran was quickly out of sight. We were happy it wasn't a rodent looking for dinner.

Kayaking was the first thing we did on the lake, a little fishing and paddling was just what the doctor ordered. I wasn't even able to get a bite. The water was littered with wooden fish traps making me think that there might be a shortage of fish in the lake outside of the traps. I doubt that is true though, it was very hard to fish since it reached depths of 1,500 feet. Later that day after about 1,000 casts I was able to catch a fish the size of my finger off the dock from the hotel. We spent a couple days touring the island on a motorbike, we noticed ere was an ATM that we would be ale to use if we needed to. There were hundreds of over ground mausoleum's that were layered out in the style of the Batik house. Other days were spent laying in the sun, reading our books, and jumping in the refreshingly cool water. We were having so much fun that we decided to spend our entire stay in Indonesia at this one spot.

There was one restaurant that we kept going back to every morning and almost every night for dinner. It was called Popy's. The food was extremely good, but we kept going back because of the owner. We caught a little sense of family when we were with him. He took us in with open arms and called us his family. His name was Possman and his whole family loved and worked with him. All the food he cooked was from his garden, coffee beans, fresh fruits and vegetables. He made his own bread and even had a small rock inclosure on the lake where he kept his fish alive and fresh until they were ready to prepare. Every day we would go there and he would sit with us and talk and tell us stories. His children would come and play with us, batting balloons and messing with the family cats. It was an enriching feeling and experience for both of us. He asked in the morning if we would want to use his personal motorbike for the day and if we wanted fish for dinner. It took 2 hours to grill the fish to the way he liked it so he needed a fair notice. We had fish for 4 nights straight, it was the best fresh water fish I have ever had! It came grilled and cooked in a curry sauce that was to die for. The other sauce was heavy on garlic and vegetables and made us salivate at the sight of it. We bought a tapestry from our new friend. It is a beautiful print of a traditional Batik lifestyle. We were sad to leave Possman and his wonderful family. We made him understand that we won't forget him and his hospitality and every time we look at our art we will think of him. I hope one day we meet again.

I knew we would need more money when we decided to extend our stay. I wasn't worried because we had found an ATM 5 kilometers away, the guesthouse was also adamant that we could pay with a credit card. It was two days before we were set to leave and we heard a guest in an argument with the staff. Apparently the credit card reader was not working and they were out of money. We decided that we should play it safe and go pull out a little cash. We borrowed Possmans motorbike (for a charge of petrol) and went to the cash machine. We got denied several times with several different cards before we understood that the machine did not accept Visa. We drove to the next closest ATM and discovered that we had the same problem. The staff insisted that we could still use our card, but after another customers failed attempt I knew I had to ferry back to the main land. The 30 minute ferry ride took an hour and a half, luckily I had enough money to get there. Once I got to the main land I power stomped to the bank where I was informed that the nearest ATM that accepted Visa was another 3 kilometers away. I found another bank but had the same problem. At this point I was drenched in sweat and hadn't had any water for several hours. I finally found the cash machine that I needed. It was a little glass box hidden behind a shop. I pulled out enough cash to pay up and stomped back just in time to ferry back. Oh The little hassles of travel!

We took the air conditioned mini bus crammed with 7 people and 7 backpacks back to the airport. We barely made it in time, but we were told that we needed to pay an exit fee. I had to go out of security back to the ATM and back in to pay the fee.

We absolutely loved Indonesia!

Posted by SMWiley 01:46 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

A cultural blend

Malay food

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It was hard to find bad food in Malaysia. With such a diverse population of people including Indian, Chinese, Europeans, and Asians you can find a variety of dishes that are unique and delicious. The smell of spices can be overpowering in little India, and over in China town the soy sauce and egg rolls are frying in the wok. There is a big presence of noodles or "mee" in many of the dishes. You can get your mee with prawns, chicken, pork, or even that meat hanging on the stick that you have no idea what it is. We tend to stay away from that.

One meal that was found all over Penang was called the Steamboat. The Steamboat is a soup that cooks around a burning pipe that shoots up from the middle like a volcano. The traditional way to heat it is with charcoal although some of the older locals say that the newer generation might not even know what charcoal is anymore. We got a tip from a local about the best place in town to try one of these and we seized the opportunity to try something new. There is no specific recipe for this you just order what you want. We weren't sure what we were ordering so we had our server assist us. The meal came out with bite sized fish fillets, fish balls, liver, tofu, pork, prawns, squid, quail eggs, bok choy and a couple other greens, and a few more items that we couldn't identify. Everything comes out raw and you have to cook it in the boiling soup. It doesn't take long to cook because the soup is so hot. Everything was delicious and cooked to perfection. The broth bursting with flavor from the meats, veg, and spoon full of garlic we threw in was my favorite part of the meal.

The hawker stalls are famous in Penang and all over Malaysia. Hawker stalls are street food served up out of carts. There are many food gardens to go to where these stalls are present. We found one in China town that made us both a little queezy. We tried Laksa, a traditional Malay dish. It has noodles and a strong sour fish taste. I didn't make it more than 3 bites before I threw in the towel. Megan was brave enough to eat a quarter of hers. Later we found out that Laksa is also made with a coconut soup and is much better, but we were unable to stomach the thought of trying it again. At the famous Gurney hawker stalls we found some steamed dumplings and fresh fruit juices that satisfied our taste buds, we liked the dumplings so much that we went back for more. When it was all said and done we can honestly say we enjoyed our meals much better at a restaurant.



We made the trip to little India 4 or 5 times to eat the food. It was prepared on banana leaves and came out in massive portions. We liked this one place in particular, it was all vegetarian. The Masala sauce was definitely the best I have ever had. The mango lassi was such a great treat and went perfectly with the hot spice.

One day on a trip to the local grocery store for soap and fruit we found a chain restaurant that served sushi, the restaurant was called Sakae Sushi. The sushi was prepared fresh and placed on a belt that meandered through all of the booths and tables. You could either pick sushi off the belt or order different rolls via an ipad or touch screen computer. We enjoyed the sushi so much we went back 2 more times!

Posted by SMWiley 01:23 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)


Where free equals 5 Malaysian Ringgit +\-

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With one week before we head to Indonesia, Stets and I decided to head to another island in Malaysia, known as Penang. Penang is a melting pot of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian people all meeting and sharing their cultures and food. The history here is extensive and according to the maps and tourist info, there seems to be a lot of free things to do and see. We gathered a list of must sees and set off to explore.

The guesthouse we were staying in was located right in the heart of historic Georgetown. Stets and I decided to walk the streets to see what history we could find. With such a blend of cultures, and also having a British influence from World War II, we were astonished by the mix of architecture, the blend of religions, and different smiling faces we saw along the way. We visited City Hall, Town Hall, The Penang State Museum, Fort Cornwallis, and walked along the Esplanade. We passed Churches, Mosques, and Temples all on the same street. The communities seem to mold together in such a happy and supportive way. We saw Little India and China Town. We were overwhelmed with what we saw in just our walking area that we decided to look into how we can move around this island in a cost effective way. Public busses! We see them everywhere. We did some research and set off to find a one week bus pass that would give us unlimited riding for a week. Perfect!

The following day, Having our bus passes in hand, we decided to head to the Penang Botanic Gardens. This 30 hectare garden was set up in 1884 to collect botanical specimens from the surrounding hills. The garden took a huge hit during World War II as it was not cared for and the majority of plants died. Although, looking at it today, one would not be able to guess at that devastation. We walked around for several hours looking at the beautiful jungle scenery, the Lilly pad pond, and, of course, the local lizards.

A major attraction in Penang is Penang Hill. The best way to access the top is by means of the funicular railway. The ride takes about 15 minutes and travels about 720 meters up the hill. Once at the top, you have access to views that encompass all of Georgetown, including the bridge that connects Penang to mainland Malaysia. This bridge is 13.5 kilometers long and the longest in Malaysia. Stets and I headed up, enjoyed the views, hiked for about two kilometers and then enjoyed some lunch. We then decided to head down the mountain in search of a temple we saw on the bus ride to Penang Hill.

Kek Lok Si Temple is the largest Buddhist Temple in Southeast Asia. Construction began in 1890 and it's 7-storey handcrafted "Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas" was completed in 1930, followed by a 30.2 meter tall statue of the Kuan Yin, The Goddess of Mercy and Compassion,in 2002. We were amazed by this temple. The feeling of peace cannot be described. Stets and I walked around in awe of what we saw and felt. We stumbled upon a tree overflowing with hanging ribbons. We took a look and saw that the ribbons symbolized wishes from visitors. We knew we had to add one to the mix. Stets picked it out and I wrote our wish on the back. We chose a spot and hung the ribbon carefully, hoping our wish will come true.

Our last big excursion on Penang led us to the National Park. We packed a lunch and loaded on the bus for our one hour ride to the park entrance. Even though everything we read about the park said "free", we arrived to find a fee of MR5(about 1.75usd) to walk through the jungle canopy. After grabbing our tickets, we headed out on our jungle trek. We hiked along the beach for about 500 meters and then headed into the jungle. After about a kilometer, we arrived at the start of the canopy walk. There was a series of about 5 walkways that led us through the jungle on the tops of trees! We felt like monkeys! Once through the canopy, we continued our trek through the muggy, humid, stunningly beautiful park. We walked through waterfalls, over rivers, and up and down the hills. After about 3 kilometers we arrived at a beach...the perfect lunch spot. We stopped for a while to eat and relax at a picnic table under a tree right on the beach. It was lovely. After about a half hour, we decided we should start our trek back, after all, we had worked up quite an appetite and were looking forward to dinner in Little India!

Penang is a beautiful place to visit; full of culture, amazingly delicious food, and history that would take more time than we have to fully understand.

Posted by SMWiley 06:45 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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