Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Halong Bay, Vietnam

One word to describe Halong Bay: stunning. And also strangely eerie! Sadly P has been feeling rather unwell so I attempted this one on my own. It was part of a 3 day tour package, which are very popular with travellers here (although it's easy to get ripped off). It included a trip around the bay on one of their 'junk' boats, kayaking, sleeping on the boat, trekking in a national park and staying on Cat Ba Island, which is the only populated island in Halong Bay.

I set off on Sunday and immediately realised this was going to be an experience - 5 minutes in they realised they'd put me on the wrong bus! Dear..god. Thankfully they noticed the mistake and put me on the right one, and then it was full steam ahead (literally!). The boat that we toured the islands on was fantastic - all wooden and quaint inside with a big deck on which to sit and admire the beautiful scenery. The first thought I had on seeing the many little islands dotted around the bay, shrouded in mist, was of being on the set for Pirates of the Caribbean! The place had such an atmosphere, very spooky.

The next day was 'organised' so that I'd do trekking in the morning and explore Cat Ba Island in the afternoon. The trekking was such a joke! Thankfully I had hiking shoes because they took us scrambling up rocky cliff faces for 3 hours (not in the initial trek description...funny that). I coped ok but some people (idiots) in my group were wearing flip flops....I couldn't believe it either. The views were very good, but I did fear for my life at several points. Cat Ba Island...well the less said about that the better. Let's just say that I'm glad I had Harry Potter for amusement!

I spent the night in the hotel and returned by boat to Hanoi (and to P!) this afternoon. It was a very fun trip and I met some fantastic other travellers along the way, but I shall perhaps think twice before doing another trek in Asia. The guides always have a screw loose, I'm sure....

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi - the city of TRAFFIC TERROR!!!! Never have we encountered roads like it. There are approximately a billion mopeds and motorcycles on the roads here, and there are no pavements as they park them all right next to the shops when they need to dismount. There is a special knack to crossing the street: walk extreeeeemely slowly! Completely opposite to your natural instinct to run for your life, you actually have to step into the line of oncoming traffic in order to cross and then (hopefully!) they will swerve perilously around you. It's been...life affirming.

There's so much to say for this entry, we've had a rather eventful time in vietnam so far! Let's start at the border. Mmmmm the border. Well, we arrived at 6.30am off the wonderful disco night bus (we loved it, it was eventful too but in different ways! and that's another story...) to glorious weather - it was chucking it down! We waited literally 3 hours for them to process everything, and were finally on our way, soaking wet and rather disgruntled with Vietnamese authorities. We arrived in Hanoi in the evening and scooted off to the Kangaroo Hotel! Very apt. It's been a good little place, even though we've nearly died every time we step outside.

On the positive side, Hanoi has quite a few cultural things to offer, and there are a few nice little restaurants. We went to a performance of traditional water puppetry "as performed in the 11th century by Vietnamese farmers!!!" with v gd live music. P especially liked the scene where the farmer drowns his wife with a bucket. Yes. I liked the bit with the special shiny dragons, swirling in the magical watery dew and shimmering in the dark... No, we are not drunk right now. The puppetmasters stand behind a screen, chest-deep in water, and move the puppets with long bamboo poles.

There's also a rather lovely lake in the middle of the old quarter which becomes the centre for lovey dovey couples at night time (so, naturally, P and I gravitated towards it). Legend has it that there is a magical sword in the middle of the lake, but I haven't seen it. Anyone else a little dubious??

Our first impressions of Vietnamese people, as opposed to the Thais, is that they are quite serious and a little leery! Personally, I've felt like I'm walking round in a human zoo which was funny at first but does get a little tiring. People will literally pull us over to them to compare skin colour "You're so white!" They think it's very beautiful, which makes us feel a lot better for still being pasty white! On the whole they are lovely, but perhaps not as cheery to 'falang' as the Thai people, and the potential for getting ripped off has definitely increased. We're trying to keep our wits about us, but sometimes you just cannot tell if you're in the middle of some ridiculous scam!

Tomorrow we head south with an open bus ticket, aiming to take in Hue, Hoi An, Ntrang, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh City. Quite a lot to grapple with in 3 weeks but we reckon we can do it!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Vientiane, Laos

C: There's a storm going on outside!! See, not all sunshine and blue skies. It's quite spectacular, and hopefully will mean that the temp is a bit cooler. This is a v quick entry from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It pales in comparison to Luang Prabang, despite being on the banks of the Mekong, and we feel like we've sussed it out in just the one day. More delicious fruit shakes to be had here though - my favourite so far is coconut mmmm! And there's a Scandinavian Bakery as well (we're getting a little addicted to their breakfasts!).

Tomorrow our bottoms are going to be braving the night/day bus to Hanoi - a mere 24 hours! There's no toilet on board and it's not a VIP bus (which is the slightly more up market model). Should be....an experience! Fingers crossed Hanoi will be worth the effort of getting there, but I think it will.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Gross Bits!

C: It's an understatement to say that travelling backpacker-style is not very luxurious. We've been going for about 3 weeks now and have encountered some seriously gross conditions along the way! Our favourite saying at the mo is "It's all part of the experience!" - those of a squeamish disposition may not want to continue reading from here...you've been warned!

  • Bed bugs in Bangkok - somehow my bed was covered in these sneaky little blighters while P got off scott free! I was bitten on the first night and still have the scars to prove it - maybe it's just coz I'm so darn tasty.
  • Cockroaches in Chiang Mai - P was sitting on her bed, minding her own business, folding her towel, when suddenly the biggest cockroach you ever saw reared its ugly head (I think she'd accidentally pulled on one of its feelers - ewww!). Being the jungle adventurer pro that I am (ahem) I swooped to P's rescue and disposed of towel and cockroach outside. Hoorah!
  • 2nd hotel in Chiang Mai - 2 more cockroaches! One in the bathroom (I trapped it under a bin) and one down the side of P's bed (I tried to squash it but it darted away). Neither of us slept well that night. Oh, and I had wormy bugs on my bed........grossssssss......
  • Snorting in Pak Beng - we stayed in a rather makeshift guesthouse on our stopover during the 2 day Mekong boat trip. Sound proof walls were not a feature, and next door was the most digusting snorting man ever!! It seems to be a real feature of Lao culture: they snort nice and loud, get a load of mucus going, then spit it all in the street or, as we were guessing, at our partition wall. Truly disgusting.
  • Spiders in Luang Prabang - whilst going for a romantic sunset walk along the river bank, P and I stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of a spider the size of a HAND. Just hanging there, minding its own business. Is this preparation for Australia?! Hopefully we'll be completely hardened to all things manky by then........
  • And last but certainly not least: TOILETS!! Asian toilets are a kind of sophisticated hole in the ground, but some of these holes are infinitely more sophisticated than others. The worst I've seen was when we were trekking, and the shower and loo were in the same...hut...area. The shower-head used for washing one's body was also the same for washing...other parts (they don't do toilet paper!) and the wasps/flies/mossies surrounding it all certainly knew where to find the germy germs. P and I had to make a quick getaway from that one to avoid stung bums! YUK.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Luang Prabang, Laos

We arrived in our second country last night after an epic three day journey! From Chiang Mai six hrs by bus to to Chiang Khong (where we stayed one night) and then ferried across into Laos from where we got our visas and (with a bit of confusion and guesswork) found our way onto the slow boat. We got off the boat and stayed one night in a tiny place called Pak Beng - whilst having dinner we'd see the same people cruise past over and over again as they'd reached the end of the village and then turned around. Then another day on the boat (with very sore bums and an Oreo cookie overdose) and finally disembarked at Luang Prabang. It's as small as a tourist town gets - basically just two parallel roads dotted with guesthouses, restaurants and internet cafes. The waterfront is pretty though and it's easy to cross the roads! They even have pavement here... and pastries and wine. The people so far have been slightly less friendly than the Thais (we're not in the Land of Smiles anymore, sob) - they tend to look at us as if we are insane whenever we ask anything or order something or whatever! Maybe they will grow on us though. At least they are not as persistent as the Bangkok tuktuk drivers. So we're probably sticking around for a couple of days, eating some pastries, making some daytrips to some waterfalls or caves from here and then we'll get the bus to Vientiane (about 9- 11 hours' journey). We're in a nice guesthouse here so not in any major rush to move! Also somehow our Lao visa is for 30-days, not the expected 15, so we're not under any pressure time-wise. Once we get to Vientiane we'll be applying for the Vietnamese visa there. The speed at which we get this will probably determine the length of our stay!

As a postscript to C's last entry, we spent the last couple of days in Thailand having waterfights with the locals to celebrate Songkran (Buddhist New Year). I got myself a green bucket and C got a little pink one.. (yeah, seriously)! We got absolutely drenched ... and our revenge. There were big barrels of water by the side of the road with gangs of kids clustered around them to refill their weapons and pickup trucks crammed with people who were basically 'drive-by-shooters'... they'd get you when you were least expecting it and would be gone before you could get your own back! The whole water connection seemed to have originated from their tradition of dunking their Buddha statues in water as part of the new year. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and see the parade go by with all the statues. Everyone lined up and sprinkled (or drenched) them with water as they went past. Very colourful and fun to watch!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Chiang Mai, Thailand

C: Northern Thailand is a world far removed from the busy, often stifling streets of Bangkok! The temperature is cooler, the people are friendlier, and I feel less like I want to punch the tuk tuk drivers. We have been here for 4 days now, 3 of which have been spent trekking in the hills an hour away from town. If I could sum up the trekking experience it would be in one simple word: endurance! After walking in the heat of the day through a jungle for 4 hours covered in filth, I feel like I could handle anything.

Day 1: We left Chiang Mai with the 2 other members of our group, Kate and Rachel, for the hills and stopped off at a local market for supplies on the way. If you ever have the chance to try fried bananas then do so - they are soooooooo delicious! We started hiking at midday (excellent idea, in the heat) and were surprised at how sparse the surroundings were. But it is the 'hot' season so it makes sense that it wasn't so much a tropical jungle. Stopping for lunch was hilarious - the guides gave us Pad Thai in what looked like Chinese takeaway boxes - brilliant! I was thinking, where are the rich tea biscuits and dried apricots?!

Late afternoon we reached the first village and it was fascinating to see how the hill tribes live. All their houses are constructed with wood and raised above the ground, with roofs made of leaves woven together. 7 families lived in this first village and we were staying in a raised hut near one family who cooked our food and tried to sell us their wares. We loved the pigs and chickens (ha)! Sleeping with the sounds of the jungle was an interesting experience, and lying on a bamboo mattress definitely tested my backbone!

Day 2: We awoke quite late to an amazing breakfast - the pineapple here is the best I've ever tasted. We did, however, have to walk in the heat of the day again, but somehow we just kept going!! We stopped in another village for lunch, this one was a bit fancier - one of the houses had glass windows! We reached our destination for the night by a waterfall and got a much needed wash - by this point we were both absolutely filthy! I'd managed to get the dirtiest (can't imagine how!) and felt so much better after cleansing both myself and my clothes. Oh I forgot to mention - our guide was a complete character - he called himself Potato..yes...because he's been told he is "sweet like a potato". Hearty laughter ensued when we learnt this! He was very funny but a little unprofessional, we nearly mutinied against him at one point!

Day 3: We spent the morning finishing the trek along the river and met up with 2 more trekkers for the afternoon's activities. This included bamboo rafting (so much fun!) and elephant riding. The rafting was especially great because we floated past all the local Thais on their holidays, who couldnt believe how white we were, and splashed us in the spirit of the Buddhist New Year - which is happening for 3 days over the 12th/13th/14th april. It will be very very very very WET!

Now we are back in Chiang Mai and today went for a Thai cookery lesson. This was fantastic, all the food is so good, but we literally had about 8 different dishes! I think I'm going to pop. But now I can make a killer Pad Thai so I shall treat you all when I get back! The fried coconut toffee bananas were......AMAZING.........droooooool.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

P: It's the evening of our second full day in Bangkok. We're perched in a cute internet cafe next door to our hotel. It's nice and cool in here until someone opens the door, when it feels as if someone has directed a hairdryer at us! We've almost acclimatised, though we try to avoid walking around at the hottest time of day. The time difference is another matter and our sleep patterns have been turned upside down - especially because our room doesn't have windows (but luckily air con) and we keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking surely it's time to get up...It's a nice room by the way (with twin beds, not a double, phew) with our own bathroom and a fridge and tv. We'll be lowering the standards very soon though!

C: The flight went fine, although the seats were so cramped together I could barely straighten my leg....so you can imagine what everyone else must have been feeling!! Also Qantas decided to serve us up some fabulous cuisine! My favourite was the passion fruit mousse....it was....orange. Anywho we got here ok and spent the first evening looking around Kao San Road - it is mental. Philipoops likened it to the Royal Mile and it does share similarities - bustley, claustophobic, touristy, loaaaaads of flyerers (with whom i can sypathise!), and lots of drunk tourists, quite a laugh really! I should also take a moment to just mention how amazing the food is, the smell of the spices really hits you in the face when you walk around the various food stalls and at night they all put out plastic tables and chairs. So cheap too!

P: Re: the flight... I have to agree it wasn't hugely comfortable. Especially when I was all snuggled up under my blanket and Catherine woke me at 5.30am by caressing me with a cold banana! Also there was this couple with a new born baby (which looked like a hairless monkey)which was relatively well behaved but occasionally noisy. And when we arrived in Bangkok we had a PINK taxi assigned to us! It was too funny. Unfortunately we spent close to 2hrs in the taxi cos the traffic is so bad here. We've managed to avoid it today by using every other form of transport there is, minus tuk-tuks because they only want to take us to PingPong shows.. We've been on boats, the Skytrain and the Metro, and our little black and blue feet. We went to a shiny big modern shopping centre and were impressed with their food court but made sure we didn't buy any clothes or hardware.. This is in stark contrast to our ultra-culture day yesterday when we saw the Grand Palace, and three temples (Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo). They were all absolutely stunning and had lots of big shiny gems stuck to them and buddha statues in them. We had to take our shoes off and Catherine had to be very very quiet for once.

C: Just quickly, we have booked our expedition northwards to Chiang Mai and will be heading that way tomorrow on an overnight sleeper train. We've organised some trekking and cookery courses so far, but may extend this to more activities when we get there. Also, it's the Buddhist New Year on 13th/14th/15th so that will be cool! Bye!