Category Archives: UNESCO World Heritage
I guess most people have a phase during their teenage years that they aren’t too proud of. For me that is a phase when I was too much into motorbikes. How much you ask? Well, enough to sport a mullet and one of those jeans vests with patches on it. My view of what qualifies as a motorbike was also rather narrow minded. A bike had to be either a full blooded street racing or moto-cross machine. I also thought that the worst thing on two wheels were scooters. These little plastic covered machines with the tiny wheels that don’t handle or accelerate well. I hope that I have become a lot more tolerant since these days. However, I was still having a hard time convincing myself to rent a scooter in Southeast Asia. But it happened. Not once, but twice and I have to admit that I had fun both times.
It started when we were in Bagan, Myanmar. You can’t rent scooters in Bagan because the taxi lobby has managed to get them banned. But the locals found a way around this by renting out electrical bicycles. These aren’t electrical bicycles as they are used in many European and some American cities nowadays. They do have pedals but they are just electrical scooters in disguise. They are fast enough and have sufficient reach to get you around the whole Bagan area. They were also cheap to rent and gave us the freedom to explore the temples at our own pace. Best of all, they were called bicycles and not scooters. Therefore I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was renting a scooter quite yet.
I had a great time riding the little toy bike around and noticed a few days later that I had been in serious motorbike withdrawal. I had sold my last one about four years ago after having owned bikes for almost 20 years. As a consequence I was all for it when J suggested a couple of weeks later that we should rent a scooter and drive to the temple ruins of My Son about an hour away from Hoi An, Vietnam.
We got a relatively new Yamaha scooter with enough power to carry the two of us comfortably. The deal is always the same in Vietnam. You get the scooter almost empty and hope that you’ll make it to the first gas station. I had heard that it is more reliable for tourist to buy the gas from the little stands next to the road where they sell it by the bottle. However, my experience was that the gas at the normal stations was significantly cheaper and nobody tried to charge me more than the meter showed. The traffic in Hoi An and the surrounding streets is not as busy and chaotic as in the big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless the driving style of the locals is creative to say the least. The only consistent traffic law is that whoever has more momentum has the right of way. If this question can’t be answered without a doubt it is discussed by honking at each other. But traffic is slow and people usually find a way around each other. The further away from the city I got the fewer trucks, buses, cars and scooters I had to deal with. Instead the number of bicycles, cows, buffalos, dogs, chickens and pigs on the road increased. But the same traffic rules seem also to apply here, i.e. watch out for cows and buffalos, everything else will move out of the way. I had a blast maneuvering the little scooter through this obstacle course. It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was riding 50cc bikes on the dirt roads around the town I grew up in.
On a second occasion we rented a scooter in Dong Hoi and drove to some of the caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Natinoal Park. The roads were in a better shape in this area of the country. This was very helpful because the scooter we had rented through the hostel was in a poor condition and needed more attention than the one we were on before. After a short drive I figured out that the order of the gears was backwards, similarly to a racing gear box. Needless to say this was the only racing gene that the little scooter had. I’m also still unsure where neutral was supposed to be. The breaks required a bit of foresighted driving and the speedometer was constantly bouncing over a wide range of velocities. But it was nice to have some kind of motion inside the instrument panel since all the other parts were broken too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to be on the road and steer the scooter out of the town and towards the hills in which the caves are hidden.
But even more important than the fun and independence of driving around ourselves was, that we got to go off the beaten tourist path and got to see a glimpse of what life is like in the Vietnamese country side. Water buffalos were pulling carts along the road and plows through the muddy fields. Kids were playing next to the road and running up to us for ‘high-fives’. At one point we got into what seemed to be the going home rush hour. The little two lane street was filled with bicycles. They were all going in the same direction. It seemed like one big stream of bicycles with people riding in clusters of two to five bikes. They were riding next to each other, talking and joking along the way. Scooters were negotiating their way through the bicycles but every now and then a loud honking car or truck would come by and most of the bicycles would end up riding into the ditch next to the road. It seems chaotic and dangerous from the outside but people are aware of each other and somehow make it work.
I’ve never owned a motorbike that was suited for travelling on. For the few short trips I did on my bikes I usually crammed my toothbrush and a set of underwear underneath the seat and called it good. However, these two excursions have sparked my interest and I can imagine doing a longer motorbike trip in the future, e.g. in South America.
Since watching the Indiana Jones movies I always wanted to go to Central America and visit temples in the jungle. I hadn’t expected that I would find the most amazing temples in Southeast Asia. I had expected all temples in this part of the world to be like the Buddhist ones with the long pointy roofs and gold ornaments. I had, of course, heard about Angkor Wat but hadn’t realized that the old Khmer temples looked as if they were straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Therefore visiting the Angkor complex wasn’t that high on my list of places to go. But it is a World Heritage Site and a friend of ours had recommended that we go there before the many visitors take a toll on its beauty. I’m very happy that we took his advice. The trip to Siem Reap, which led us through the country side of Thailand and Cambodia, was already amazing. Siem Reap turned out to be a nice little town and the Cambodian people were very open and friendly. After spending a day exploring the town, we rented bicycles from our hostel and rode down the long, straight road that leads to the Angkor Temple complex. The street is surrounded by the jungle with big trees lining its side. We had a late start, but the shade of the trees made for a pleasant ride despite the late morning heat. When the trees opened up for the first time we found ourselves at the moat that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple. We found a parking spot for the bikes and took the stone bridge over the moat to the first cloister ring. The temple grounds weren’t very busy since most people seemed to be already eating lunch at one of the little restaurants across from the temple. Storm clouds were moving in as we were getting deeper into the temple grounds and even more people left the premises. Seeing the temple for the first time is already breath taking. But it wasn’t until we crossed from the first ring over to the center of the temple that I started to grasp the dimensions of this building.
We walked through the dark corridors, discovering more and more corners of the building. By the time we climbed to the highest point of the temple where the sanctum is located it was pouring down and lightning was flashing across the sky. I couldn’t have wished for a more impressive atmosphere. We were stuck in one of the greatest temples in the world and had it almost to ourselves due to the weather. But I only realized how lucky we had been when the sun came back out a little later and the hordes of tourists returned.
We got back on our bicycles and continued to the Angkor Thom complex. This was the last capital city of the Khmer empire and home to a large number of temples. We rode through the south gate of the old city wall with the monkeys watching us from its top. From there it was only a short ride to the Bayon temple located in the old city center and the elephant terrace. But after walking up and down the many stairs inside of Angkor Wat we decided that we should call it a day and explore these temples another time.
After a recovery day we were back on our semi-trusted bicycles and cruising down the roads towards the Angkor complex. This time, the Ta Prohm temple was at the top of my to-see list. Nature is in the process of claiming the temple area back. Giant trees grow out of and over the temple walls, their roots holding the stones with a firm grip. Seeing the dimensions and thinking about the time scales on which the processes of construction and destruction of this temple take place is truly impressive.
We continued exploring and climbed a few more temples. The last one was the Bayon temple that we had ridden our bikes around previously. The top of the temple is covered in faces that are carved into the stone. We walked through a short corridor and ended up in the sanctum. The room was dark except for a few candles that were burning below a Buddha statue and a small column of light that entered the room from a hole at the top of the ceiling. Before our eyes had completely adjusted two people had moved us into the center of the room and motioned for us to sit down. They prayed for us and put red bracelets on our wrists.
Afterwards we headed back towards Siem Reap. This time we weren’t as lucky with the weather as a couple of days earlier. We had just cleared on of the old Angkor Thom city gates when it started to pour. Everybody tried to get to a dry spot. Busses, tuck-tucks and scooters flew by us. But after the initial rush, things calmed down and it was fun riding through the warm summer rain as we had the road almost to ourselves. At least until we got to the outskirts of Siem Reap. This was where things got interesting. It wasn’t raining that hard any more but the road was disappearing in big puddles of brown water. Traffic was heavy and we had to share the road not only with the usual amount of scooters and bicycles but also with trucks and buses. This, together with the creative driving style of the locals, made for more than one surprise before we could finally take a turn onto a less busy road. But we got to our hotel safely and a hot shower later the ride didn’t seem that scary anymore.