Friday, 23 May 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

Hooray! Seven-and-a-half weeks after flying into Bangkok we've completed a big circle, visited four countries, and made it back in one piece! Time spent on buses currently stands at about 106 hours, while time spent on boats totals about 30 hours. I got to Bangkok last night, travelling with two German girls, and Catherine is arriving today, in the compay of a bearded Swede I believe (not sure if male or female) ;-) ...
The beginning of the rainy season made visiting Vietnam's beach towns Nha Trang and Mui Ne less interesting than it could have been, so we didn't hang around long (though I stayed a day longer than C in Mui Ne because I couldn't resist checking out the Fairy Stream). Once in Saigon I bumped into Igor, the cousin of my Basque friend, within an hour of getting of the bus. It's a small world! I spent two days there taking in the sights and planning my next border crossing and caught up with Igor in the evenings over a couple of drinks.
I decided to go with the 2-day Mekong Delta tour into Cambodia, travelling by boat and bus and taking in some sights along the way. On the first day we sailed past a floating market and saw some sweet-making shops and drank Jasmine tea whilst sampling Vietnamese delights such as coconut or peanut toffee and popped rice. This was just before it started pouring rain and we ended up being whipped by wind and rain whilst sitting in our teeny boat (quite scary really, though you just have to laugh - the logical thing would have been to turn back but try telling that to an Asian). After that it eased off a bit and we had lunch and listened to some traditional music. We stayed overnight in a place called Chau Doc and on the second day we saw a floating market, a fish farm, and a Cham village (according to the guide, the governement reduced the price of TVs so that poorer Vietnamese have less children - even the most basic huts had a satellite dish). We crossed the border by boat with a really good guide, a Chinese-Vietnamese woman who was very funny, very nice and efficient and, most unusually, kept us informed along the way of what was happening next. She helped us with our visa applications and faffed about with the border police while we had lunch. Easiest border crossing ever, and because we did it by boat we were at a quiet border crossing point - we were the only ones there!
Once in Phnom Penh I teamed up with two German girls (Angelika and Christina) I met along the way, and we shared a room, making the expensive riverfront slightly less expensive! My first impression of Cambodia was that its culture and religion were closer to Laos or Thailand than to Vietnam, and the people seemed less stern as well. However poverty was rife, and there were a lot of beggars and cripples. When we didn't buy books from the streetkids they could be really aggressive - one had even bothered to learn to say "I'll kill you" in English to scare tourists. We realised that everyone over 35 must have been directly affected by the Khmer Rouge regime, and anyone younger is also suffering the after effects. There aren't many old people and the ones you do see are often crippled or bald from years of malnutrition. And this is just what we saw in the nicest area in town! We also saw the king drive by in a line of armoured vehicles a couple of times.
After two days we got the bus to Siem Reap - it took 6 hours but the road was not too bad and the bus, though old, was comfortable enough (we didn't go for the VIP bus option). Siem Reap is very touristy and the only thing to see are the temples, but it has lots of good restaurants and bars and a couple of supermarkets so all the tourist needs are catered for. Like Phnom Penh we found it very expensive. We did the tour of the temples on the second day. I've never taken so many pics in one place! It was rather stunning, though the afternoon rain cut the tour short so that was disappointing.
Yesterday we crossed the border to Thailand... A journey we'd been warned would be hard going, and it was! We took the direct bus to save money (another option was taking a taxi to the border and then getting on a bus, but no one could say how much the bus would cost or when/where we could get it). The road was so bumpy that we drove at about 30km/h all the way... and the bus looked like a battered 30-yr old school bus. No air con and the dust got everywhere! But kind of fun... :-) Then the bus on the Thai side of the border was a pleasant surprise of course. We were on the road from 8am till after 9pm.. today is definitely a chill-out day! It's nice to be back somewhere familiar.
On Monday I'm heading south to Pattaya to stay with a family friend, but other than that my plans are unfixed. I think I will pretty much be sticking to the original plan, and Catherine is flying to Oz in about a week. She can give me tips for when I get there!
That's all for now x x x x

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Hoi An, Vietnam

This is our fourth day in little Hoi An, and we haven't stopped sweating since we got here... definitely noticing an increase in temperature as we head south! We're also frequently getting quite heavy rain in the afternoons or evenings, which cools things down a bit. The Vietnamese here are not staring at us so much anymore and the secret photo-taking-of-Catherine-by-old-men has stopped too - hooray! I guess that's given us some idea of what Malaysia is probably going to be like. I'm going to learn to say "Please stop staring at my friend" in Malaysian before we get there. I better start practising now!

Hoi An's sttraction lies in its waterfront and the beach, which is less than 5km away (we cycled there and back yesterday without getting killed - success!). The sea is very clear and the sand's gorgeous too, but the jellyfish and women selling peanuts, bananas and jewellery can get a bit annoying. In town there are a million tailors and shoemakers who you can order clothes from and have them customised, which we have been experimenting with.. I ordered a shirtdress, which they made in the material I had chosen for the lining. It looks...interesting... C got some sandals that turned out well and some shorts that are a bit shorter than she wanted but very stylish. Other shops have silk lanterns, pretty china dishes and paintings. We've tried the local cuisine, which is typically wonton dumplings in different sizes and flavours - quite exciting as you don't really know what you're getting!

By the way my oesophagus is completely healed now - the trick seems to have been to stop taking most of the medication apart from my 'proton-pump inhibitor' pills, which reduced my stomach acid (and appetite!) and I've finished taking now. The Vietnamese hospital was not too bad actually - in case anyone is picturing a dirty crowded place where no one spoke English, it wasn't like that at all.

Just to ruin the structure and logic of this entry entirely and ignore everything I learnt in English Lit, I'm going to add a couple of random sights and experiences I think we forgot to mention:
  • Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi, where the queues to see his body snaked out across the parking lot and onto the pavement. They worship him! We had to hand over our water and cameras and were bossed about by the guards - they even shoved us along. Interesting though! You'll see our photos of the crowds and the exterior of the monument at some point...
  • Pak Ou caves (daytrip from Luang Prabang) - a kind of graveyard for abandoned buddha statues that were damaged or went out of fashion. We took a boat to the caves which were carved into the cliffs and stopped on a whiskey-making village on the way. They bottle snakes and lizards in it for any tourist who imagines that they can carry a bottle of the stuff home!
  • Lao massage (Luang Prabang). When we got off the slow boat it seemed like a good idea to be pummeled a bit after sitting on hard benches for two days! For 2 pounds we got a one hour 'traditional Lao body massage' which involved tiny but strong Lao women kneading our backs, arms, fingers, toes, neck, bum... Not exactly relaxing but did the trick! As far as we cang gather the Thai massage is even more energetic. We'll see whether we dare to go for it when we're back in Thailand!

Hue, Vietnam

Hue acted as a good rest stop after the craziness of Hanoi, and was a much sleepier and more chilled town in comparison. We arrived off another night bus (yaaaay) to bright sunshine and streets lined with palm trees, along the impressive Perfume River. Still a few mad mopeds, but nothing as deadly as Hanoi! The accommodation in Vietnam has dramatically improved and we found ourselves a rather nice hotel at a v reasonable price. On the first day we explored the older walled part of town and the ruins of the Emperor's old palace, looking a little too ruined for our liking! It was a shame, because we could just imagine how magnificent it would once have been. In the evening I tried my hand at rolling some traditional Vietnamese spring rolls - much harder than it looks! They were delicious though - for any culinary enthusiasts, the secret seems to be in the herby peanut butter sauce....

Our second day had a bit more purpose, as we'd booked ourselves onto a tour of the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ). This is a must if you're interested in the fragile history of the country over the past 40 years or so. About a 3 hour drive out of Hue, we were taken to the no man's land that separated North and South Vietnam during the war. We were then driven along the Ho Chi Minh highway, which was used to smuggle weapons, and then given a short tour of the Vinh Moc tunnels. This was the highlight of the trip, and the tunnels were so narrow that I could barely stand up straight (so everyone else was practically bent double!). It was hard to imagine anyone living down there in the heat and the dark - there was little ventilation. People must have been desperate enough though, and 17 babies were born in the cramped conditions. After 20 mins I was quite happy to emerge into the open again.

Our stop in Hue was short but sweet, and gave us another view of Vietnam other than the mad chaos of Hanoi! We're now in Hoi An, a completely different town again, but that's for the next post...