Tag Archives: caves

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Aside from the Sunderbans in India, Ha Long Bay was probably the most disappointing destination for us. Considering that it tops many “must-see” lists (it was also named one of The New York Times top destinations for 2012), we were pretty excited to see the UNESCO World Heritage site.

And yes, it is beautiful. The 1,600 limestone islands and islets rising out of the Gulf of Tonkin waters into craggy towers are certainly a haunting site to see. I’m not sure it is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World…but it certainly is magical.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

So why were we unimpressed? Well, for one, we had crappy weather. This made for some atmospheric fog, but in general it’s not that fun to be on a boat on a cloudy, cold, and rainy day. Or two days. But the main reason we were so disappointed in Ha Long Bay is the available ways to experience it. It has become so commercialized that almost the only way to experience it, and certainly the easiest way, is via a tour company. While we are generally not ones for tour companies, it is possible to have a good experience on one. But that unfortunately was not the case at Ha Long Bay. As far as we could tell, the only trip on offer was virtually identical from all the companies. If you walk into any hotel or tour company in Hanoi they will happily set you up on one. After searching around and finding little difference (although we did hear stories of getting stuck on crappy boats) we booked through our hotel with Christina Cruises. This means that the bay is full of identical-looking boats and each group goes to one of two caves (which are super cheesy–we went to “Surprising Cave”), rents kayaks from the same few companies in the same place, and then heads to Cat Ba Island for a hike–it was pouring during ours–and a night at a subpar hotel. You’re also stuck on a boat for two days with a bunch of random people–could be great or could be annoying. In our case, it was mostly annoying, although we did chat a bit with some Vietnamese tourists visiting from Ho Chi Minh City. And did I mention the food is very average?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I know, I sound like an anti-social grump. But Ha Long Bay really is a special place and the tourist industry is turning it into a Disneyland of sorts, which is really so unfortunate. I would happily pay good money to go out on a small boat with a captain who could show me some sites that aren’t full of a bunch of other people. But that just didn’t seem like an option. If anyone has done Ha Long Bay this way, please let me know!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

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Filed under Natural Beauty, Sites, Transit, Vietnam

Laos: Mong Ngoi and Ban Na

At the end of our long and crowded boat ride the charming village of Mong Ngoi awaited. Only accesible by boat, Mong Ngoi is a small village consisting of a few dirt paths–no cars allowed. There are numerous guesthouses though as the popularity of “getting off the grid” rises with travelers. Because we arrived on the last boat only one place had an open cabin left, but the next day we moved to a cute bungalow with a hammock on a porch overlooking the water. I was still nursing my foot so we took it easy, lounging in the hammock, enjoying the cheap and popular all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, and taking short walks.

Sheets of seaweed with sesame and tomatoes drying in the sun. This is a popular Laotian snack.

Rice cakes drying in the sun.

Woman doing laundry.

View from our second guesthouse.

Perfect sticky rice.

Fresh fish curry.

You can find US bomb casings like this one decorating homes and restaurants all over Laos.

They come up with some pretty creative uses for them…

The village Temple.

Young monks.

A very pregnant pig.

We became friendly with a couple from Canada who had gotten there a couple days before us and they recommended walking up to some caves near the end of the village. I hobbled along the path to the caves but decided to wait down at the bottom while Manor scaled the steep cliffs where the caves were. No one mentioned that the caves would be pitch black, but luckily Manor met some explorers up top who lent him their flashlight for a few minutes. The caves housed a large stone phallus and were atop a mountain with a beautiful view.

When we got back to the village a pig was being roasted, which although it smelled delicious we did not partake in.

As usual, Manor woke up super early and managed to get some nice shots of our view.

 

 

 

 

I was feeling much better so we decided to make the hike to the next village, Ban Na. At first we followed a defined path, passing bamboo dams and kids on bikes and walking over several bamboo bridges. But soon we found ourselves in a large open field. After wandering around for a few minutes we almost decided to turn back, but then a young Laotian man walked up and when we asked him how to get to Ban Na he said we could just follow him.

Crazy insect we saw…still have no idea what it is!

Oh you know, just walking some pigs.

Criss-crossing the field, which is likely impossible in the wet season, Ban Na was on the other side. Upon arriving we immediately sat down at the small (and only cafe) and ordered food and drinks–we had worked up quite a sweat! We also enjoyed some relaxation time in their hammocks before walking through the tiny village (you can walk the whole thing in about 15 minutes).

Fixing a fishing net.

Ferns drying to be used as brooms.

Basket weavers.

We walked back to Mong Ngoi and enjoyed the peace and quiet there, knowing the next day we would return to Luang Prabang, one of the biggest cities in Laos (which still means it’s pretty small…but still).

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Filed under Accommodations, Culture, Food, Hike, Laos, Natural Beauty, temples, Villages

India: Caves, Caves, and More Caves in Ajanta and Ellora

Back in December, we took a few days to go to the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharastra (the same state Mumbai is in, about 6 hours away). Unfortunately, in order to visit the caves the best place to stay is in the city of Aurangabad, which is really not a very nice place. There are very few good hotel options and it seemed that the few affordable places with good reviews were booked so we ended up in a pretty depressing place (this was after we switched hotels) near the local cinema.

The first day we headed out to Ajanta, which is the farther of the two, about 2 hours outside of Aurangabad. Ajanta is a group of 29 Buddhist caves built in 200 and 600 BCE. They were accidentally rediscovered in 1819 by British officer who was hunting a tiger (ah, those were the days). They are pretty much all in a row, and some are more impressive than others, with large Buddhas and stupas inside. My favorite was the one with giant reclining Buddha on one side.

The second day we decided to do a kind of package deal where a driver took us to the Ellora caves first, and then a few other small sites. We ended up in a van with an Indian family–parents and a son who was around 10. We felt bad for intruding on their family vacation, but they were very nice and friendly, offering to explain several things to us.

Ellora has 34 caves built between 500 and 1000 BCE, and they are varying religious origins: Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist, and they are more spread out.

After seeing a few of the Jain caves, we went to Ellora’s main attraction: the Kailasa Temple. It’s actually not really a cave in the traditional sense and was in fact carved out of one single rock, starting from the top and working their way down–it is even multi-storied. This is extremely impressive when you see just how enormous Kailasa is (according to Wikipedia it is double the size of the Parthenon). We decided to get a guide to show us around and gain some insight into the various carvings. Our guide was an older gentleman who used to be a teacher, which became quite obvious when he scolded us for not paying attention or standing in the wrong place! But he was very knowledgable and we learned a lot about the Indu gods and their marriages.

After Ellora the driver took us on a whirlwind tour of Aurangabad’s other offerings, which include a special kind of weaving (both paithani and himroo). We saw some beautiful hand-woven textiles, but they were all above our price range. Next, we went to the Ghrishneshwar Temple. We wouldn’t have been necessarily interested in this temple, but the Indian family was quite excited to visit and explained to us that it was there because it is believed that when Shiva destroyed Jyotirlinga he divided her into 12 pieces that dropped to the earth and this temple is one of 12 in the world where a piece of her is believed to have fallen. The most fascinating part of it all for us was that the men had to remove their shirts (still not sure why!) as they walked in to the inner part of the temple. So Manor joined the gaggle of Indians, along with the father and son from our tour and removed his shirt to walk through.

Random cow churning...butter?

Next we went to the Daulatabad Fort, a gorgeous old fort atop a mountain. It was great fun to explore; there is even a secret underground passage, but it was full of bats so we stayed out! There were tons of schoolchildren around and we soon learned that before Christmas vacation all the school take the kids on field trips. We got a lot of photo requests from giggly young school girls and boys…

…who seemed to follow us to Aurangabad’s big attraction: the Mini Taj aka Bibi-ka-Maqbara, the burial place of Aurangzeb’s wife, Rabia-ud-Durrani. It is an imitation of the Taj, hence the title Mini Taj. It’s lovely, but after seeing the actual Taj, I can say it’s not that exciting.

People dropped coins down onto the tomb.

We got back to our hotel around 7 pm and had a lot of time to kill before our midnight train. After dinner we decided to see a movie at the local cinema, which turned out to be the latest Mission Impossible movie. In Hindi. We actually had virtually no problem following the simple plot and had a lot of fun as the crowd of young Indian men hooted and hollered at various times. It was also fun watching Hindi words come out of Tom Cruise’s mouth!

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