Monthly Archives: January 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #49: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Posted by on January 31, 2009

UNESCO World Heritage Site #49: Ha Long Bay

UNESCO World Heritage Site #49: Ha Long Bay

From the World Heritage inscription:

Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1,600 islands and islets, forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and unaffected by a human presence. The site’s outstanding scenic beauty is complemented by its great biological interest.

Ha Long Bay might be the best natural heritage site in SE Asia (excluding Borneo).

They typical Ha Long Bay excursion will be a 3-4 hour bus ride from Hanoi and a 1 or 2 night stay on a junk in Ha Long Bay. There are also options to stay in nearby Cat Ba National Park.

One of the unique features of Ha Long Bay are the women who sell snacks and drinks from their boats. They will row up to the anchored junks to sell things to tourists. The woman in the above photo had a boat full of soft drinks, potato chips and candy.

Q&A #1

Posted by on January 30, 2009

I sent the word out on Twitter to see if people had any questions for me about my travels. Here are the first batch. I’ll be doing this every so often, so make sure to follow me on Twitter if you’d like me to answer a question.

@feureau If you could pick one place to live in for the rest of your life from all the places you’ve been to, which one will it be?

@Traveling_Man Yo Traveling Man, Just curious of all the places you been to, where would you consider rooting down for awhile?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’d want a place with good internet connectivity. That rules out many of the countries in the Pacific, even though I really enjoyed those places. Japan and Korea get cold, so those are out. I like Melbourne, but it can get sort of cold in the winter as well and Australian internet always bothered me. Noumea, New Caledonia is nice but expensive. Too much air pollution in Manila. Kuala Lumpur is nice, but sort of boring. Dubai I’ll explain in an upcoming post.

I suppose my short list based on places I’ve been so far would be: Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Auckland, Honolulu, Taipei, Cairns and Brisbane.

@HomeBiss Yes, I have a question. Can people use your travel photos?

It depends on what you want to use them for. If you want to sell prints, the answer is no. If you want to use it for a blog post, you usually just need to send me an email telling me you want to use it and provide a link to my site. I will usually want something in return. It doesn’t have to be money, it could just be a link back to my site.

Your best bet is to send me an email (gary at and just ask.

@Neil_Duckett How much have you spent? More or less than you’d budgeted and hoped?

I’ve probably spent about $60,000 over the last two years not including the purchase of my electronics. That amount isn’t evenly distributed. I spent way more in Australia and the Pacific than I did in SE Asia. I have tried to keep a mental budget of about $100/day. I tend to avoid dorm rooms in hostels and use the internet more than most people do, and I never cook my own meals, so I’m sure I could reduce my costs even more if I had to. I also travel alone, so any time I could share costs with someone, I am not able to. Here in Dubai I’ve spent more than $100/day just because hotel rooms are expensive.

$60,000 sounds like a lot (and it is), but if you consider how much it costs to live in a western country for two years (rent/mortgage, car payments, fuel, food, utilities, etc) you are probably looking at a sum very similar. $60,000 works out to about $82/day. Just like with travel, you could spend less or more depending on your lifestyle. If I hadn’t visited some of the more obscure places and did more things to limit my expenses, I’m sure I could have spent about 1/3 less than what I have.

@gtowna Is life on an isolated atoll in the middle of the Pacific all it’s cracked up to be — would you spend the rest of your days there?

No way in hell. People have these island fantasies because they see a pretty photo with a white sand beach and a palm tree. Atolls are nothing but long stretches of calcium carbonate (coral). It is very hard to grow anything, there is little in the way of materials to build anything, they are difficult to get to because you have to get across a reef, and you have no fresh water. All the water you have to drink has to come from catching rain water. Because you are only a foot above sea level, you are subject to getting washed away with every storm that hits.

There are three countries in the Pacific which are nothing abut atolls: Marhsall Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu. All are dirt poor and people are leaving in droves. Atolls are places where people washed ashore and survived, not places that people migrated to, to thrive.

A more idyllic island would be one with a mountain in the middle of the island. It has more vegetation, probably has streams or maybe a spring for water, you have a place to go in the event of a storm or tsunami, and just more land. Samoa, Fiji or Rarotonga better fit the bill.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #48: Complex of Hué Monuments

Posted by on January 30, 2009

World Heritage Site #48: Complex of Hué Monuments

World Heritage Site #48: Complex of Hué Monuments

From the World Heritage inscription:

Established as the capital of unified Viet Nam in 1802, Hué was not only the political but also the cultural and religious center under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. The Perfume River winds its way through the Capital City, the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and the Inner City, giving this unique feudal capital a setting of great natural beauty.

Hue is analogous to other Asian cities such as Kyoto, Gyeongju and Nanjing in that it is a former imperial city. Unlike the other cities, the history doesn’t date back nearly as far. The current structures only date back to the early 19th century.

There actual city of Hue is pretty large; almost one million people. The history part of the city consists of the walled outer city and the walled inner city, which contains the royal residences. Most of the royal buildings are undergoing renovation/reconstruction and there currently isn’t much to see.

In addition to the walled city, the Thien Mu Pagoda (shown above) is also part of the World Heritage site and is located on the river several kilometers out of the city. You can easily get there via bicycle rickshaw.

The Musandam Experience

Posted by on January 30, 2009

I am back from Oman and in Dubai for a few days before moving on. I am still having issues with finding a good internet connection anywhere in the Middle East. I still have photos from Thailand I have to upload. The hotel I’m at now in Dubai put a 120mb cap on bandwidth, which can easily be achieved without downloading any big files or watching video.

My trip to Musandam was interesting to say the least. The ferry which goes from Muscat to Musandam is perhaps the worst run business I have ever witnessed in my life. The ferry (of which there are two) is very expensive. I’ve read they cost US$60m each. They are high speed, diesel powered catamarans designed to carry 56 cars and 220 passengers from Muscat to Khasab, the largest city in Musandam. Because Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman, the ferry is designed to eliminate the need for two border crossings when you have to pass into the UAE.

Why is this a horrible business?

  1. The car ferry has never transported a car. In the excitement to have the world’s fastest ferry, they never built a ferry terminal to support loading cars onto the boat. It only carries passengers right now. I have seen no activity towards building an actual terminal for cars.
  2. The flight to Khasab is 55 minutes versus 5 hours for the ferry. The cost is the same. An airplane can carry as many vehicles as the ferry right now: zero. You have to show up at the ticket office two hours before the ferry leaves to get on a bus to take you to the ferry.
  3. The operating costs of the ferry are enormous. It burns 18,000 liters of fuel each trip. Even though Oman is an oil producer, with subsidized fuel it is almost impossible to break even with a full boat. There were about 10 crew on board the ship that I could tell and there would probably be more if they had to load cars. The snack bar was open and everything was free. There were about 20 passengers on the boat when I took it.
  4. There is no website where you can buy tickets. There are no agents which you can buy tickets from. I’ve seen no marketing material of any sort except for a very nice full color brochure you get after you buy a ticket. There has been no advertising and no one in Muscat seems to know anything about the ferry other than it exists and it is the best in the world.
  5. Musandam, the destination for the ferries, has a total population of 30,000 people and three hotels. They probably couldn’t support a full boat of people if they had one.
  6. The ferries were not designed for long haul routes. They were designed for trips no greater than an hour. The engines are being used far more than they were designed for with 5 hour trips. As a result, mechanical problems and issues with spare parts will start creeping up over the next few months.

The ferry is sort of a microcosm of what you see in much of Oman: pretty cool looking, but sort of dysfunctional once you look behind the scenes.

Musandam itself is an interesting place. Khasab is totally surrounded by bone dry mountains and cliffs. It is difficult to see any vegetation anywhere. I took a mountain safari with two Austrians and had a guide take us up into the hills.

Life up in the mountains isn’t too different than what it was a few decades ago when people lived in holes in the mountainside. You can still see some of the dugouts if you look closely enough. You can also see many marine fossils in the mountains, which date back about 2-300 million years.

If you look at a map of Musandam, the tip of the peninsula is a giant tangle of fjords. In addition to driving up into the mountains, you can also take short dhow trips into the fjords.

There are no taxis in Khasab and no buses which run to Dubai. This makes getting around difficult, but there aren’t too many places to go, so it sort of evens out. There are usually vans which will shuttle people to Dubai every day, but it isn’t a regularly scheduled run.

It is really a stunning and beautiful place which doesn’t get much in the way of tourism. If you have a vehicle, it might be worth a one to two day trip from Dubai if you have some extra time.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #47: My Son Sanctuary

Posted by on January 29, 2009

World Heritage Site #47: My Son Sanctuary

World Heritage Site #47: My Son Sanctuary

From the World Heritage inscription:

Between the 4th and 13th centuries a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism developed on the coast of contemporary Viet Nam. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower-temples located in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.

If you visit the smaller, more distant temples in Angkor, you’ll have an idea of what My Son is like. The architectural styles are very similar and both are of ancient Hindu origin.

My trip to My Son was rather disappointing. It is about an hour drive from Hoi An and is up in the hills. On the day I went it was raining heavily so what few photos I took had to be taken under an umbrella. It is also much smaller than I assumed it would be. Even in the rain, I was able to walk around the entire grounds in about an hour. While it is only a fraction of the size of Angkor, the visitor center and facilities are much better than anything you will see in Cambodia.

If you are in Hoi An it is worth the trip, but if you are expecting anything like the temples you can see in Angkor you will be disappointed.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #46: Hoi An Ancient Town

Posted by on January 28, 2009

World Heritage Site #46: Hoi An Ancient Town

World Heritage Site #46: Hoi An Ancient Town

From the World Heritage inscription:

Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.

Hoi An is one of the stops on the typical tourist route from Saigon to Hanoi. A very small town near the sea, it was a trading port for hundreds of years. It has an architectural style unlike what you will find in the rest of Vietnam.

It isn’t the flashiest of sites, but it is a nice city and worth while place to visit if you are in central Vietnam.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #45: Preah Vihear Temple

Posted by on January 27, 2009

World Heritage Site #45: Preah Vihear Temple

World Heritage Site #45: Preah Vihear Temple

From the World Heritage inscription

Situated on the edge of a plateau that dominates the plain of Cambodia, the Temple of Preah Vihear is dedicated to Shiva. The Temple is composed of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and staircases over an 800 metre long axis and dates back to the first half of the 11th century AD. Nevertheless, its complex history can be traced to the 9th century, when the hermitage was founded. This site is particularly well preserved, mainly due to its remote location. The site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.

You can read about my trip to Preah Vihear: Part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I can’t recommend visiting Preah Vihear until the tensions between Cambodia and Thailand cool down. Even then, the best route is to visit via Thailand, not from Cambodia, even though it technically lies in Cambodia. There are no paved roads on the Cambodian side of the border, but on the Thai side there is very easy access and tour buses which frequent the temple.

I hope that one day there is enough development in Cambodia that visitors to Angkor in Sieam Reap will be able to easily visit Preah Vihear. Currently, it isn’t worth the effort.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #44: Angkor

Posted by on January 26, 2009

World Heritage Site #44: Angkor

World Heritage Site #44: Angkor

From the World Heritage inscription:

Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.

I could spend a month at Angkor and fill every day taking photos. There were hundreds of photos I could have taken if I was only at a place at a different time of day.

Most people only think of Angkor Wat and assume that temple is all there is to see. The entire Angkor complex is enormous and encompasses many square kilometers, not including the many smaller temples on the outskirts of Sieam Reap. People still live on the grounds of Angkor and make a living selling things to tourists (often annoyingly so).

I spent about four days exploring Angkor and I could go back today and see things I didn’t see my first time around.

So that thing about the thing….

Posted by on January 26, 2009

So… I am going to Musandam.

Arun, who lives in Oman and met me on Twitter, came through and figured out where I had to go.

The ferry company is in a very nondiscript building with a temporary sign out front behindsa tree

With all the money they spent on the boat, they forgot to budget money for a sign.

I’ll have more to say about this later, but I have an hour to pack and get back to the ferry office so I can get on the boat.

So, about that Musandam thing….

Posted by on January 25, 2009

There are certain assumption you make when you travel. They are usually pretty mundane things like “there is an airport in the capital city”, or “a major city will have hotels”. You usually don’t have to worry about the things you assume because they are always true.

Having read numerous articles about the ferry to Musandam I figured it would be as easy as taking a bus or a plane. All I needed to do was find out the schedule, get in a taxi and go to the ferry terminal at the right time.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

It seems that everyone I’ve talked to in Oman has heard of the ferry, but no one actually knows anything about it. I’ve spoken to five travel agents near my hotel. None of them offer ferry tickets nor know where to go to get tickets. No one in my hotel knows anything. None of the cab drivers know anything or where to take me to get a ticket. There is no website for the ferry company. All the searches you do bring up articles about the ferry, but no actual information on how to get tickets nor can I find links to a website from the articles. I have been told by one taxi driver you get tickets in Ruwi, but he didn’t know where that was. One Omani told me that they are only for government officials (which I have no idea if that is true).

This huge investment the government made in high speed, world class ferries is pretty much useless as no one knows how to take it, even if they wanted to. I can’t even verify that the ferry is currently operating. This is sort of another version of what I experienced in Nizwa. They have something great, but don’t bother to make any signs pointing to it.

I think I’ve reached the point where I have to cut my losses and take the bus back to Dubai. It sucks that I wont get to Musandam, but that’s life. So tomorrow, its back on the bus and a few days in Dubai before heading to Qatar.