A Travellerspoint blog

Phnom Penh

Welcome to Cambodia!

sunny 31 °C

We left our hotel in Phu Quoc at 7:30am and based on the adverts that accompanied the trip we booked. We were meant to arrive in Phnom Penh at 16:00 so we had braced ourselves for a day of travel.Thankfully the shorter ferry crossing to the mainland town of Ha Tien was very calm. From Ha Tien we took a bus (that did not have 'air con' as stated and therefore was a sweat box) to the border. Here we disembarked and made our way to the Vietnam exit which took ages. We then walked across to the Cambodian entrance and again waited for some time for our visas to be finalised. We also had to have our temperatures taken and pay a dollar for Cambodian medical cover for the duration of our stay, despite non of the travellers on our bus wanting to pay for this service, it was compulsory to gain entry. The whole process for crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia was very slow and for a couple of Swiss travellers who had overstayed their Vietnam visas, it was even slower and this in turn delayed our bus further.

As soon as our journey from the border to Phnom Penh got underway we could immediately see the poverty that exists in Cambodia. The road leading to and from the border was a really poor dust track with local traffic mostly consisting of motorbikes heavily loaded with goods. As with the other SE Asia countries that we have visited, dogs roamed the streets. Without breeding control the female dogs are normally pregnant or have a litter of puppies in tow. Dogs frequently wander around the in the roads and amidst traffic yet most seem to have the awareness to avoid vehicles. However within ten minutes of our bus setting off, one Cambodian dog made the fatal mistake of wandering into the road with its back to our bus. Our driver braked slightly and blasted his horn. Unfortunately this dog did not respond to the horn so instead of braking further our driver drove straight over the dog which yelped on impact. We were at the front of the top deck of the bus and therefore saw the dog perish and like those around us we were wishing we had chosen seats further back! We have noticed that drivers in SE Asia expect animals to respond to vehicle horns - cows that wander into the road are also tooted at, without drivers slowing down. A traveller we met said that on average over ninety people per day die on the roads in Vietnam, we don't know how many of those are moped accidents but it must be a high percentage. However with drivers expecting animals to respond to vehicle horns, it's surprising the accident rates aren't even higher.
As our bus continued through rural villages we could see that many of the homes looked much poorer than in the other countries we have visited. Rural transport frequently consisted of two cows dragging an old fashioned wooden cart along the road tracks. We also went past trucks packed with people in the back. Children were playing in the fields, many of them did not have clothes. We also saw young children working in the fields along with adults.
Our journey continued and it felt like we were making slow progress with the roads that were tar macked being damaged by large pot holes. There was evidence that the roads were in the process of being developed, with many new bridges being constructed. This meant that our bus tested the strength of the temporary bridges and although they creaked and wobbled a bit, thankfully they were strong enough.
We finally arrived at the outskirts of the capital at 21:00, five hours later than advertised! Our bus guide informed us that the bus could not enter the city of Phnom Penh without a genuine reason. Once again we were dropped off outside of the city at a random location where by coincidence Tuk Tuks were waiting!

Having had no choice but to take a Tuk Tuk into the city we checked into our hostel and immediately went out in search of food. We took another Tuk Tuk down to the river, an area that is clearly developed for tourism. We went to a Cambodian restaurant that had a link to the hostel where we were staying and the food was great. Afterwards we took a short walk around the nearby bars and restaurants and saw that 'Happy Herb Pizzas' were advertised. As we walked along the street "Tuk Tuk" drivers enthusiastically touted for business, followed by "ok you don't want Tuk Tuk, do you want drugs?"

As well as being the capital of Cambodia and a rapidly developing city, Phnom Penh also has chilling history. The Kymer Rouge, led by Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot) ruled after taking Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and implemented one of the most brutal and radical restructurings of society ever attempted. It renamed Cambodia 'Democratic Kampuchea' and it's objective was to wipe out any intellectuals in the country, dominate the country with peasants and focus on creating a giant slave labour camp. Individuals that could speak another language or who wore spectacles, were classified as intellectuals and therefore killed! Entire populations of the cities and nearby towns were forced to march to the countryside and work as slaves all day, every day and provided with meals that consisted of watery porridge twice per day. Thankfully the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh on January 7th 1979, ending the rule of the Kymer Rouge. However by then it is estimated that the Kymer Rouge had killed around 1.7 million people.

So the next morning we went on a Tuk Tuk with a Slovenien couple as part of tour arranged by our hostel to the "Killing Fields of Choeung Ek" (14KM from the centre) where the Khmer Rouge executed around 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. The four of us joined another English couple and hired a guide who informed us of the brutal and fairly recent history of the former orchard/Chinese cemetry. We started at the memorial stupa which contains more than 8,000 skulls of victims which have been found in the mass graves and exhumed. We then walked around the mass graves and saw the places where prisoners were killed, often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. It was hard to imagine the barbaric events that took place on the site as we walked through the quiet green orchard taking advantage of the shade the trees were providing from the scorching sun. As we walked around the area, the remains of human bones were visible in the ground. We stopped at a large tree where we were informed that the babies were killed, the killers using the trunk of the tree to do so. After walking around the site and reading the signs explaining the grim history we went inside the museum, watched a short and poorly narrated 'video' before viewing the photographs and exhibits in the museum.

Having returned to our Tuk Tuk the four of us and our driver went back into the city to the Tuol Sleng Museum. Previously a high school, this building was taken over by the Khmer Rouge who transformed classrooms into torture chambers and renamed the facility 'Security Prison 21' (S21). Here, upto 100 victims were killer per day and like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of every prisoner and all were photographed. Only 7 prisoners were still alive here when the Vietamese liberated in 1979. We walked through the buildings and saw the makeshift prison cells (very small) that had been built inside the former classrooms. We also saw some of the torture equipment that remains in the rooms before viewing the vast photograph galleries of the prisoners - with their haunting faces staring eerily back from the recent past.

After the chilling sights earlier in the day, we made our way to happier sights in the city which included the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The Palace contained very ornate buildings and lush, leafy gardens. The Silver Pagoda is so called because it's floor is made up of 5,000 silver tiles. After visiting the palace and pagoda we walked down the river-side and past a wealthy wedding convoy containing modern Bentleys and Rolls Royces that had police protection.We then saw the wedding party having photographs by the riverside, again flanked by tight security.

We explored further along the riverside than the previous evening and found a busy, Westernized area by river which contained modern shops, bars, restaurants, new high grade hotels in addition to many budget accomodation options. We also noticed a significant increase in single, middle aged/old western men hanging around the bars and cafes in this area and let's just say anyone in their right mind wouldn't want them to babysit!

Posted by NicChris 20.12.2010 22:48 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Phu Quoc Island

Chilling out at last - though well worth the wait for Long Beach!

sunny 32 °C

Having boarded the Super Dong ferry our first impression was that it was very modern and we all agreed it was the best ferry we have travelled on over here. We were on the top tier (two levels) and there were two flat screen TVs at the front which showed the film 'Avatar' during the crossing.
However, our crossing on the 'Super Dong' ferry was so rough that we subsequently renamed it the 'Puker Dong'! The first passengers to be sea sick were a young child towards the rear of the boat and a pregnant woman just behind us filled her sick bag and then gratefully handed it back to the ferry staff! The ferry started to sway more and more violently, with waves crashing against the windows and over the top of the boat. An hour into the journey and sick bags were being requested and distributed more and more. Business men were dashing out of the 'VIP' area at the front and trying to run through the aisle of the ferry to the open deck at the rear, however the sway of the boat meant that they could only take one pace at a time whilst clinging on to the seat head rests for balance. We were ducking in fear of a projectile vomit attack but thankfully we made it through the journey without a shower of puke! Somehow, we all managed to get through the journey without being sick. A combination of the rough crossing and 'sick air' had Nic and I feeling really rough in the middle of the crossing but through a combination of focusing on our Ipod music, fixing our eyes on the TV screen (to try and ignore the sway of the ferry), avoiding eating and taking deep breaths we did avoid it. Ben displayed a great skill in that when he started to feel rough he simply fell asleep and slept through it!

As the ferry moored at Phu Quoc we were all delighted to clamber off and get our sea legs back onto solid ground. As we did so we saw what a beautiful paradise island we appeared to have arrived at. We had read that Phu Quoc is an island with deserted white beaches, untouched reefs and 90% of the island being protected forest. We had also read that mass tourism is in the pipeline with mega resorts planned so we were keen to get to the island and see it before the development. It was really sunny when we first set foot onto the island, which always helps with first impressions. We immediately noticed the lack of high rise buildings/developments - infact at the ferry port there was just a long pier lined with taxi vans. The island appeared a lush green colour thanks to the forest cover and then this was surrounded by sandy beaches and shimmering blue waters. The four of us informed a taxi driver that we had pre-booked a hotel (Ben & Nettie had researched and booked a hotel two nights earlier and after hearing their description of the hotel we also made a reservation the night before) and he agreed to take us immediately. Having loaded our bags into the van and got in ourselves, he of course ignored what he had just said to us and tried to get more passengers on board as we waited. A few minutes later and with four more passengers aboard we set off. There was no tar mac road, just a bright orange dust track. After around fifteen minutes of rural tracks we reached a tar mac road and shortly afterwards arrived at a resort of bungalows next to the beach. Only this was not the hotel that we had pre-booked. The taxi drivers assistant / mate says "Come in and see our bungalows, very nice and nice price for you". Once again we informed them that we had pre-booked and gave them the hotel name. The Germans and French on board had not pre-booked and went to check the rooms out. After one more stop on route, and some further complaints from ourselves we finally got to our hotel.

After weeks of consistent travel, moving on from place to place frequently and enthusiastic sight seeing we were really keen to have a few days on the beach, relaxing in the sun and doing as little as possible. We had booked three nights at the hotel and we were delighted with the place. The hotel had a pool, a beach bar and a private beach. After checking in we got ready for an afternoon in the sun and made our way to the beach and were greeted by a palm tree lined paradise. After a short spell on our sunbeds we took a few steps to the beach bar and sat looking at the view of the beach / sea and sat smiling, very happy with where we had found ourselves. We had feared that we might not have made it to a beach after the floods in Thailand and out of season resorts we had experienced/visited. However, this place was fantastic. We ended up staying for six nights and did very little apart from sun bathing, swimming in the sea/pool, drinking ice cool tropical fruit shakes, enjoyed Vietnamese massages on the beach, Nic had her nails done (also on beach) and eating the local specialities.
Other than walking down the beach each day and going out in the evening we did not explore the island any further. We had been tempted to hire a moped and go to a nearby waterfall that was advertised where you could also swim in the natural pool and we considered going to 'the best beach on the island' but in the end we were so happy with where we were that we just stayed there and enjoyed it.

We went out with Ben and Nettie for dinner for each of the three nights that they were also in Phu Quoc taking advantage of the international restaurants available, we dined at a Vietnames/Australian restaurant, enjoyed a cracking Indian Curry and a Mexican/Vietnamese. We also went to a couple of bars, including 'The Dog' a little 'pub-like' bar nearby to our hotel. Nic and I represented 'the North of England' and played Pool against 'the South of England' with Ben and Nettie giving us a 2-0 thrashing. In response Nic recalled her University days and challenged 'the South' to a game of Darts and we subsequently lost again and went home having only succeeded at having spicier curries than the South! Ben and I entered a game of killer pool and he did really well, finishing second to a very happy Vietnamese chap who walked away with the pot. The next night we played pool again at 'Amigo's Mexican' bar and The North bounced back winning the first two games, the second game being won by a black ball that was potted having got out of a snookered position (yes the luck was with us!). Not content with a draw, the competitive nature of both North and South teams wanted a winner and we played a final match to determine the champions. After some cracking pots from Nic (and a few trick shots...) the North won as Chris retained composure and potted the black. We weren't quite sure how we'd managed to win, but we did!

In the day we enjoyed watching locals fishing and gathering shell fish from the shallow waters next to the beach. We got talking to a local chap who had lived on the island all of his life and currently runs a diving tour business and Nic asked him how the island had changed in his lifetime. He showed us the two hotels that were on the beach ten years ago and explained that all of the others had been built since then, with more still being constructed/planned. Our hotel was located on 'Long beach' which is just South of the main town 'Duong Dong'. The beach is lined with holiday accomodation, mostly 'beach bungalows' with some hotel/guest houses of two or three levels behind them. They haven't ruined the place with high-rise hotels just yet.... albeit there is still some construction under way however from the outline structures we could see they appear not to be monstrous buildings.
He told us that life had got much harder on the island as more Vietnamese were coming from the mainland to fish in the waters around the island. He blamed over-fishing of the waters for a drop in the numbers of fish available now and that before, the islanders fished the waters around the island and were self sufficient when it came to fish sourcing, something that is becoming more and more difficult for the islanders.

Nic and I enjoyed two atmospheric nights dining at the Night Market where local stalls served a variety of Vietnamese specialities including locally sourced sea food and skewer kebabs cooked on charcoal grills. The diners were a combination of locals and tourists and the nights that we saw the market restaurants - they were packed with people and there was a vibrant and fun feel to the place. The food was excellent, with local recipes and ingredients being combined to great effect.

The weather was glorious each day and we thoroughly enjoyed our time on Phu Quoc, so much that were both tempted to stay and miss out Cambodia altogether. As tempted as we were, we dragged ourselves away to continue with our travels to Cambodia - the tenth and last of the new countries (first time that we have been) that we will visit. If you fancy a beach holiday in SE Asia then we can definitely recommend the island of Phu Quoc, but get yourselves there quickly before the island gets over-devoloped!

Posted by NicChris 13.12.2010 21:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Mekong Delta

Floating alongside the Floating Markets

sunny 31 °C

We boarded a modern air conditioned bus at 7:30 and left HCMC in the direction of 'My Tho' passing green rice paddy fields, pineapple plantations and hamlets on route. The bus arrived in My Tho city where we transferred to a motor boat and our guide informed us about the area. We saw the Rach Mieu suspension bridge over the river - a development that we could tell locals were proud of. We also saw the local fishing port and were informed about the river that we were on and it's location in the Mekong Delta. We past several islands including Dragon island, Phoenix island, Turtle island before we stopped and disembarked at Unicorn island. Here we sampled local fresh tropical fruits from the orchard garden, local food and drinks specialities including natural honey tea (produced from the bee farm on site), banana wine (like tequila), and experienced live traditional Vietnamese singing which included translated recognised tunes like: 'if you're happy and you know it clap your hands' which helped encourage tourist participation!
Without warning as our tour group sat relaxing whilst sampling the local specialities, the tour guides re-appeared draped by a large live snake each. After some uneasy movements from the tour group and some seating rearrangements, several members of the tour volunteered to take advantage of the photo opportunity. Chris took part, having the snake placed around his neck and over his shoulders with his hands holding the snake towards it's head and tail. The snake was heavy and lively, with it's head constantly on the move. Thankfully we were assured that it had already been fed and that it wasn't hungry!
Next we re-boarded the river boat and cruised past picturesque rural villages as we headed to a coconut candy workshop on Ben Tre island. Here we saw how the coconuts are opened and each step of the production that follows to create the end product - chewy coconut sweets with a variety of flavours. We were then given the opportunity to sample the finished goods and in addition 'Snake wine' which is also locally produced - Nic tried it and said it just tasted like strong alcohol.

We then got into rowing boats and were taken to an island for a traditional Vietnamese lunch (rice, pork & vegetables) passing through lush green canals lined with coconut trees. After lunch we went on a group bike ride around the local village, passing homes and bushland containing fruit trees mostly along dirt tracks.

In the afternoon we travelled by bus to 'Can Tho' where we checked into the guesthouse where our tour group was staying. We went for dinner with an English couple from Bournemouth who were doing the same tour as us - Ben and Nettie (Janette) down by river at a busy alfresco restaurant, where each table had a barbecue (which looked like a terracotta plantpot containing red hot coals with a grill placed on top) and after choosing meats/fish diners self cooked it on the table barbie. The food was fantastic and the atmosphere and location was great.
The next morning we had an early start as our tour headed to the Cai Rang floating market. Our tour group boarded a boat and we sailed down the river, stopping on route to meet another smaller taxi boat where we picked up three chaps who had booked a 'home stay' and slept in a local family home for the night. We had heard mixed reports about homestay experiences, however the experienced Australian traveller who we got talking to after he had boarded our boat said that he'd had a great night at the homestay, albeit they had got through several bottoms of strong rice wine and he was either still drunk or he had managed to escape without a hangover which he admitted himself he was very surprised about. After around half an hour sailing past ramshackle riverside homes - where roofs were contructed with patchworks of different materials we arrived at the area of the river where the floating market was located. There were 'selling boats' and 'customer boats' meeting on the river and exchanging trade. It appeared to us to be more of a wholesale market, with customers buying in bulk. We boarded a pineapple boat, inside which was completely full of pineapples and enjoyed sampling their fresh product on the roof of their boat. The most interesting boat we saw was the local mobile petrol station boat, which sailed past with a petrol pump aboard the old wooden boat - and of course the captain of this boat was smoking a cigarette! After the floating market we were taken to a local settlement and we saw how rice noodles 'Vietnamese vermiceli noodles' are produced at the local factory. Factory is a big word for this small scale production, it was more a cramped outbuilding where we saw workers repeating steps in the production process for which they are responsible. Animals wandered around amidst the production room and it was clear that hygeine wasn't high up on the priorities here. There was also outside toilet - a wooden cubicle that had been built on bamboo stilts above the river - with an automatic flush (the river water itself) positioned just next to the production area...nice! We then went on a short group walk through the local vegetation, passing trees laden with fresh tropical fruits and walked over the river via a 'monkey bridge' made from one bamboo tree.

In the afternoon we took a three hour minibus journey to Rach Gia along with Ben and Nettie. In the evening the four of us set out on foot in search of somewhere to go for dinner. We did not have a map of Rach Gia and either we missed the main area for food, or Rach Gia did not have much to offer. After walking for some time we found a place down by river. As we crossed the river there was a young local bloke on the bridge who appeared to be asking us for money, however as he spoke only Vietnamese we couldn't be 100% sure what he wanted. We continued to the restaurant thinking that we had left him behind, however as we sat down we saw three waiters ushering him out so he was clearly following us in. This was the first time we had encountered a persistent beggar in SE Asia, in fact generally we have seen very few beggars - more frequent are street hawkers peddling their goods.
The next morning we had another early start, heading to the port to get the early morning ferry to Phu Quoc.

Posted by NicChris 08.12.2010 00:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City

"Saigon"

sunny 30 °C

On our bus journey from Hue to Hoi An we had past through Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. The traffic on the city streets there was insanse, nearly as manic as Hanoi! As we somehow made our way through the city unscathed we saw glimpses of a modern city, with new high rise buildings and individually designed stadiums. When contemplating moving on from Hoi An we decided to fly to Ho Chi Minh City. We had initially planned to make our way to Nha Trang, famous for it's beaches on route, however the weather forecast remained overcast/rain for the East Coast (normal for this time of year) and therefore we decided to miss Nha Trang out and avoid a day and a night of travelling in favour of a budget flight in the hope that we can still make our way to a beach in the sun over the next three weeks. Hoi An does not have an airport so we went back to Danang along the coastal road. The coast between Danang and Hoi An also has long stretches of beaches and we saw huge resorts being developed along them, also passing some already established 5* hotel resorts. It's clear that the development of top end holiday packages is a priority in this area and that the landscape is going to continue to drastically change.
On our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is better known we made our way into the city on the public bus. The city was very busy with traffic and as usual in Vietnam - motorbikes were dominating, albeit the roads were wider and there were more footpaths available than Hanoi so it did not feel quite as crazy to walk around the city. We stayed in the popular backpacker area called Pham Ngu Lao and the area was buzzing day and night. Close enough to walk to the city sights our hostel was surrounded by modern concrete buildings with neon signs advertising the establishments and the usual 'motorbike taxi drivers' trying to find business. Stafff from the many restaurants and bars in the area were all attempting to get passers by to enter their establishments, with 'happy hour' offers and 'best food in Saigon' just a couple of the many sales lines. Just one hundred metres from our hotel was access to a series of alleyways which were lined with more traditional wooden buildings containing restaurants, bars and food stalls. Hawkers, some of whom were young children walked the streets trying to sell all sorts of products to tourists, from cigarettes to sunglasses. The next day we walked to the 'War Remnants Museum' and managed to wander around the floor containing an exhibition named 'requiem' containing graphic photographs from the war, many of which had been taken by photographers who died during the conflict - before the museum closed for lunch. We found that lunch time closures are common in many of the tourist sight locations in Vietnam, with air conditioning and lighting being switched off and tourists ushered out of the buildings and grounds at the beginning of the stated lunch times. We returned to the museum after lunch and saw further displays containing retired artillary and further images of the brutal realities of war including torture of prisoners. There was also a section of the museum dedicated to the after effects of the war focused largely on birth defects caused by the use of defoliants, in particular Agent Orange that was used by the Americans during the Vietnam war. The museum displays were in both Vietnamese and English, albeit the museum presented a one sided view of events.
In between visits to the museum we also managed to visit what is today known as the 'Reunification Palace' which was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's presidential palace. Communist tanks crashed through the gates into the palace grounds in the morning on April 30th 1975 when Saigon surrendered to the North. The building has been left in the same state as it was on that momentous day and tourists are able to walk around the palace corridoors and peer into rooms. Tanks remain in the grounds outside and when we were there workers were maintaining the palace grounds in the heat of the midday sun. In the afternoon we walked to the 'Ben Thanh Market' an indoor market which was sweltering inside. A huge array of products were available, with one vendor informing Chris (who was wearing a PUMA T-Shirt) that he had lots of PUMA T-Shirts available for sale that weren't on display on his stall....
In the evening we booked a tour in the Mekong Delta with our bus out of Ho Chi Minh City scheduled for early the next morning.

Posted by NicChris 07.12.2010 04:51 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Hoi An

Delightful & Charming Old Vietnam

overcast 27 °C

The majority of the bus journey to Hoi An was on scenic mountain roads. We arrived in Hoi An and the bus driver did the 'usual trick' and dropped us off at a hotel where he had 'a connection' and as we retrieved our bags from the hold, we were pounced on by hotel staff informing us they had the best quality and cheapest rooms in town. Previously we have always replied that 'we have already booked a room elsewhere' in order to escape their inisistent sales approach, however the price they offered for the rooms here was low and a couple of other travellers who were sat in the bar outside the hotel told us it was a good place to stay. So we viewed a room and decided to stay at least for one night. After checking in we walked into the centre of town and made our way down to the Thu Bon River. We immediately liked Hoi An immensely, with its narrow lanes lined with cafes, restaurants, shops and a pedestrianised system operating in the old town (keeping out the mopeds!). Traditional Vietnamese lanterns lit the streets and the An Hoi footbridge was illuminated with dazzling oriental lanterns and giant illuminated oriental animals floated on the river, along with traditional Vietnamese wooden boats. We made our way to a restaurant on the riverside and enjoyed an upstairs table with open verander offering views over the river and old town. We tried one of the local specialities, fried 'Hoanh Thanh' (Wontons), fantastic as was the rest of the meal. The next day we hired bikes and explored the area further, starting with the 'Japanese Covered Bridge' which as the name suggests - has a roof for shelter The bridge also has a Temple built into it, a monkey guarding one entrance and a dog guarding the other based on it being the year of the monkey when construction began and the year of the dog when the bridge was completed (1593). We also made time to wander around the arts and craft shops where we also saw local women making silk lanterns and visited the 'Reaching Out' workshop and shop which sells fair-trade gifts - and their profits support disabled artisans. We then made our way to a recommended 'Tailor-made clothing' shop (one of Hoi An's specialist trades) and Chris was measured up for a new suit. The next day we returned to the shop at 11am for Chris to try on his suit and after a couple of amendments the fitted suit was ready by mid afternoon. In between trips to the tailor shop we managed to cycle around a couple of the nearby islands and experience more of 'old Vietnam' with locals going about their daily routines in their residential streets. In the evening we enjoyed some more local specialities down by the river, including 'White Rose' a type of Shrimp rice paper/pancake and a Vietnamese hotpot and washed it down with some local brew. Hoi An is certainly our favourite place that we have visited in Vietnam so far offering a glimpse of tradional Vietnam that we had been hoping to see, even without sunshine we loved our time there!

Posted by NicChris 29.11.2010 08:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Hue

Historic Hue

sunny 29 °C

Bright sunshine greeted us as we arrived at Hue train station along with a large group of taxi drivers all touting for fares into the centre. A Dutch girl who had been on our train approached us as we exited the train station and asked to look at our map of the city. She then spotted a people carrier from the Backpacker Hostel that she had pre-booked and it turned out to be there to pick her up. She very kindly invited us to join her in her in the people carrier, with the hostel staff hoping that we might also want to stay there when we got there. We took a look at the hostel but it was in a noisy location so we decided to take wander around in search of a better place - along with Henrik & Stephanie. We found a guesthouse down a quiet alleyway with the added bonus of a swimming pool for the same price as the hostel and after dumping our bags we took a quick dip in the pool and soaked up the sun for an hour.
Early in the afternoon we made our way across the Song Huong river to the Citadel, a former imperial city home to Vietnams last royal dynasty (1802-1945) that was later heavily bombed by the Americans. We made our way across the moat to the 'Imperial Enclosure', a citadel within a citadel and inside the 2.5km long and 6metre high walls we found many ceremonial halls, gardens and 'the Forbidden Purple City' which was reserved for the private life of the Emperor. Bizarrely, amongst all of the disintegrating halls there was also a brand new 'all weather surface' tennis court at the centre of the citadel, which purports to be a restoration - apparently the emperor had enjoyed sports!
We made our way to the large 'Dong Ba Market' and walked around the many stalls offering a wide variety of goods and negotiated with vendors for some fruit, knowing full well that prices were being inflated for 'tourists'. The main backpacker hostel area of the city was also home to many restaurants and bars targetting travellers and when we went out for a bite to eat in the evening, this area was very busy with fellow travellers and tourists socialising in groups.
The next morning we booked a bus to take us to Hoi An in the afternoon.

Posted by NicChris 29.11.2010 08:21 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Ninh Binh

overcast 28 °C

We left Cat Ba on a ticket for bus, ferry and bus to Ninh Binh. The start of the journey was fine however in Haiphong our bus stopped and ordered all passengers to get off. Thankfully the driver also got off and walked us all across the road where he flagged down another bus for us. I say bus, it was more an antique battle bus. It didn't actually stop for us to get on, we just had to dive on as it continued to roll along the road. Inside it was packed with locals sat in a decrepit, worn, dusty & dirty bus. The driver had a type of flask on the dashboard with a little cup next to it that he regularly used to poor himself a tea, to keep himself refreshed between smoking cigarettes. There were several other locals working on the bus, with one bloke always stood hanging out of the open door (whilst bus was moving) looking for potential passengers or freight - as the buses also operate as a postal service, taking products and packages from locals on the roadside and delivering them to addresses on route in return for cash. It was really dusty inside the bus and the roads outside were also dusty, so at times we were sat in clouds of dust and cigarette smoke as the old bus rumbled along, as usual overtaking on blind corners and blasting the horn regularly at other road users. After a couple of hours the drivers assistant flagged another bus down by hanging out of the open door and waving (as we overtook it). Our bus stopped and we were told to get off and change to the bus behind that had just been flagged down. After another hour on this local bus we arrived in Ninh Binh and we walked around looking for a hostel to stay at. The rooms in the hostels we looked at were worse than in other towns we had visited and it took us some time until we found a reasonable place to stay. We went out in search of some food and found that there was a real lack of food vendors, cafes and restaurants in the city. We went to the one restaurant that was recommended in Lonely Planet that specialised in Goat and found the service, food and interior very disappointing. We had come to Ninh Binh as we had heard that it was a good place to access the many sights in the surrounding countryside, so we planned to get out of this disappointing city on an excursion the next day.
We walked to the train station to book in advance an overnight train out of Ninh Binh and found that the station office was closed until 20:30. We met Henrik & Stephanie, a German couple who live in Freiburg close to the Swiss border who were also hoping to book train tickets. We had an hour to kill before the ticket office re-opened so we went for a drink in a nearby cafe. When the ticket office re-opened we managed to book 'hard sleeper' tickets on the train leaving the following evening, with Henrik & Stephanie also booking tickets in the same cabin.
As we walked through the city towards our hostels amongst the manic evening traffic, we witnessed an accident on a pedestrian bridge. It may have been a pedestrian bridge but a woman (with her child sat on the back) was knocked off her bicylce by one of the many mopeds that were using the footbridge. The Vietnamese locals appear a feisty bunch, in particular the women and this lady picked herself up off the ground and started punching the moped driver (bloke) who had collided with her. After numerous right hooks to his face, she decided she had given him a good enough beating and got back on to her bike and off they all went back in to the crazy traffic.
The next day we booked a car and driver to take us to some of the local sights, having decided against the cheaper moped option due to traffic in the city. We went on a boat trip at Trang An, with a local lady rowing the boat along the river which past temples set in the green jungle clad mountains, fantastic scenery even in the overcast weather. We rowed into a cave where the river ran through the mountain, with the mountain rock so close to the boat that Chris was having to duck around them in the complete darkness. There was no light at the end of the tunnel and with thoughts of trapped miners and earthquakes fresh in our minds Chris explained to our boat lady that he wanted to get back outside into daylight rather than contine to explore the caves. Next we went to the Bai Dinh Temple complex, which is a mixture of old temples and new temples that are still being constructed, which is apparently the largest complex of temples in Vietnam. After walking around the complex we returned to the car and went to Hoa Lu, which was the first capital of independent Vietnam under the Dinh dynasty and the early Le Dynasty (968-1009), chosen as a capital location due to it's proximity to China and the landscape that allowed protection of the city. Hoa Lu is set in a landscape of limestone mountains and the ancient citadel has mostly been destroyed. We walked to the top of one of the mountains and saw and ancient temple shrine at the summit, along with great views of the nearby area. We were chased up the steps by a local who was trying to sell us incense sticks who turned into a tour guide at the top, showing us which direction to look and then demanding money! After we escaped down the mountain we walked through the old town residential area and experienced some true Vietnamese tradition. Small local businesses were set in the front rooms of peoples homes, opening out onto the alleyways or food stalls set just outside the homes in the street, locals walking by or passing on their bicycles and animals wandering the streets. We were waved at and many locals said 'hello' as we wandered through the charming streets. School kids followed us on their bikes, it appears not too many tourists make it to this little traditional town and it was a highlight of the day for us. After our day out we made our way to the train station and waited along with a large group of other travellers for our train to arrive. Shorly before the train was due the gates were opened to the platform and we wandered across a track in darkness to a platform where a large tour group of French travellers had congregated. The train rumbled in and once on board we settled into our hard sleeper cabin, six of us getting into our beds, ensuring that we killed a few mosquitos that had followed us into our cabin before we slept through the majority of the journey to Hue.

Posted by NicChris 26.11.2010 22:10 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Halong Bay/Cat Ba Island

Scooting Around

semi-overcast 27 °C

We booked a bus to Cat Ba Island through our hostel (most hostels offer tour agency services) and the hostel arranged for a taxi to take us to a bus station in Hanoi. On arrival at the bus station it was very unclear where we should wait and which bus we would be getting on. We bumped into an American couple, Alan and Missy who had been on our bus from the airport into Hanoi city a couple of days earlier. They were also taking the bus to Cat Ba and had been informed that our bus would leave from the rear of the station (we had been given the impression that it would leave from somewhere at the front). We made our way to the rear of the station forty minutes before our bus was due to leave. A bus driver shouted "Cat Ba" so we loaded our backpacks into the storage and boarded the coach. The bus left thirty minutes before our scheduled departure time, with the four of us non the wiser as to whether we had caught an earlier bus or whether they'd just decided that our bus was going earlier. We were sat opposite Alan and Missy at the front of the bus and were starting to swap details of our travels so far, however our driver was on a mission and this involved him blasting the horn at everything else on the road. The roads were busy and therefore he was blasting the horn every few seconds making it very difficult for us to have a conversation, albeit we all found it fairly amusing - especially when the driver was on his mobile phone as it was the only time he stopped beeping. Alan and Missy had recently travelled in India and trekked in for seven days to avoid having to go to land at an airport with a sloping runway that has a poor safety record. They had taken off from the airport afterwards and showed us photographs of the runway and it was clear from the pictures why pilots struggle to land there. Our bus dropped us on a busy road in Haiphong where we learnt that our connecting bus would pick us up fifty minutes later. The connecting bus arrived on time and took us to the ferry. After a short ferry crossing, we arrived at Cat Ba island and boarded yet another bus which took us across the island to the town. Cat Ba island is the only populated island in Halong Bay (3000+ islands) and has long beaches, lakes, waterfalls and limestone hills. Half of the island is categorised as national park and the dense jungle offers many activity options. On our arrival at Cat Ba town we took a look around several guest houses with Alan & Missy and with it being out of season there were bargain rooms to be had. The centre was basically one coastal road, with a row of shops, cafes, restaurants and guesthouses lining the waterfront. The view out to sea with the old Vietnamese boats in the bay and limestone cliffs either side was lovely, however the architecture and development of the towns buildings was not so aesthetically pleasing. We found a recently renovated place and then went out in search of food. Alan and Missy had booked a boat trip for the next day which included kayaking and rock climbing, both of which are popular activities on the island. Nic and I were instead hoping for a relaxing day on the beach and therefore some sunny weather. The next morning we awoke to an overcast sky, albeit the sun was trying to get through. After a walk down to the beach and no sign of the sun breaking through, we decided to hire a moped and explore the island further. We had never fancied hiring a moped before, but there was such little traffic on the island and what little traffic there was, was dominated by mopeds. So we hired a moped for $4 (US) and off we went, with Nic declaring her moped debut as more scary than her skydive experience! The sun had of course now broken through and we slowly chugged along the coastal road, tooting our horn around every bend with locals either smiling at us or looking pretty concerned that we were on the road. We made our way to the Cat Ba National Park entrance and opted for a hiking trail that we were informed would take us one hour to climb up the mountain and another hour to return. The trail started with some old stone steps and then continued with a climbing pathway through the jungle. We clambered up rocks and went around trees and through gaps in the undergrowth. The hike was quite challenging at times but we thoroughly enjoyed it. We reached the top and got talking to a French couple and Spanish couple who were resting at the summit and very friendly and doing the Cambodia/Vietnam/Laos circuit in the opposite direction to us. The panoramic views of the jungle covered hills from the summit were fantastic and we enjoyed them for some time before making the return trip.

Posted by NicChris 25.11.2010 20:51 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam - Hanoi

Good Morning...

overcast 28 °C

We arrived in Hanoi and avoided the unofficial taxi/minibus hawkers outside and headed for the offical minibus into the centre of the old town. The traffic got busier and busier as we got closer to the centre, with the number of mopeds and motorbikes dominating the roads. As the minibus doors opened, another hawker said "welcome to your hotel". We had all read up on the city in advance and knew to avoid all of these hawkers and set out to find a hostel that was recommended in Lonely Planet. The streets were packed with locals and tourist pedestrians trying to manouvre through the dense flows of traffic. Motorbike taxis and pedal tricycle drivers consistently communicated their availability as we walked. There were no pedestrian crossings, you simply have to walk slowly into the buzzing traffic and let the mopeds steer around you. We walked past street food vendors and stalls with sizzling and smoking foods being cooked and sold and large outdoor bars packed with locals socialising. We found our way to a slightly quieter street where our hostel was located. Having checked in we made our way out to see what Saturday night in Hanoi was made of. Having enjoyed an Indian curry we then made our way through the old town streets. What a fascinating city Hanoi is! The traffic is completely uncontrolled and you have to be slightly crazy to cross the road, each time we reached the other side of the street we felt elated to still be alive. We walked down to the North of Hoan Kiem Lake and walked around its shore road. We past a busy road of shops and takeways with recognised global brands before making our way down side streets lined with art galleries and craft shops. Having had a walk around the old town streets and seen so much happening we made our way to a European bar near to the hostel and relaxed with a beer. The bar was showing Premier League Football, so Chris enjoyed a few beers with the locals whilst watching United. The next day we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Unfortunately we arrived at just after 11am and were informed that the area containing Ho Chi Minh's embalmed corpse is only open between 8am and 11am. We wandered around the museum instead and saw photographs and exhibits celebrating Ho Chi Minh's life. We walked back into the city and headed to a food street in the old town and sampled some local Vietnamese specialities, before walking through the old town shopping streets, which were again packed with people and traffic. In the evening we went to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant in a historic house and enjoyed the food and atmosphere. Thankfully we missed the food street in the old town that specialises in Dog! Hanoi was a fascinating city to experience for a couple of days, however it would take years off our lives to live in such a manic place!

Posted by NicChris 25.11.2010 04:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Laos - Vientiane

Petite City

sunny 30 °C

We booked places on a coach to take us from Vang Vieng to the capital of Laos, 'Vientiane' having decided to avoid another 'mini-van' experience and as we waited outside our guesthouse for a Tuk Tuk to pick us up and take us to the bus station, a mini-van pulled up and informed us that we were going in that as the coach was not running... great!! The journey was much shorter and on a straighter road than our previous and the air conditioning actually worked! As our minivan made it's way into the centre of Vientiane we got the impression that it was more the size of a town, than a city. Vientiane was settled by the French and as we walked to our hostel we saw French Patisseries, Bakers selling baguettes and French restaurants mixed in to the Laos shops and restaurants. As with Luang Prabang, there were many French tourists in the city. Having checked into our hotel for the evening, we walked along the river front an area that is in the process of being newly developed with a large block paving terrace and gardens. The city itself contained the usual tourist gift shops etc. but was nothing to write home about. The bars and restaurants were quiet and as we walked to the very small night market, the city felt kind of deserted. The next morning we booked a flight to Hanoi for the afternoon and then took a Tuk Tuk across town to Pha That Luang. This is a golden monument, apparently the most important in Laos as it's a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. There was a big event taking place outside the Temple area, with a stage set-up, a huge outdoor market with hundreds of stalls and processions of locals dressed in costumes. It was a flying visit to Pha That Luang as our Tuk Tuk was waiting outside to take us to the airport. We only spent one night in Vientiane and we felt that was enough, however we would have liked to spend more time in Laos, the people were always friendly and smiling and the areas of the country that we saw were very scenic. Thankfully we also enjoyed lovely sunny weather each day of our time in Laos. Luang Prabang was the highlight for us and we still have the South of the country to explore, but unfortunately we don't have time on this trip.

Posted by NicChris 22.11.2010 06:37 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos - Vang Vieng

Kamikaze Kids

sunny 32 °C

After an early morning start to pick up our Vietnam visas, we were picked up from our hostel by a Tuk Tuk and taken to the nearby bus station. Here we boarded a 'mini van' destined for Vang Vieng. The van was extremely cramped for space and the prospect of a seven hour journey in it was not a pleasant one! The organisers were not letting the van leave until all seats were full, despite an advertised departure time of 10am. We had read that transport in Laos was unreliable and that buses were likely to break down, run late etc. The organisers asked three Aussies to leave the van next to us to switch to our van to fill it, however their van was more spacious and when they saw the state of our 'funbus' they refused to move. Some more Tuk Tukes arrived with new passengers and with ten persons were on board, the roof visibly strained by the weight of the luggage placed on the roof rack, the organisers then decided to start loading the belongings of a local who was moving house inside and pack them around us. At this point Chris clambered out of the van and remonstrated with the organisers that there was a lack of space as it was and that there was no way the household belongings were being loaded. As Chris demanded our bags to be unloaded, the organisers took the house move belongings out of the vehicle and promised that our van would leave at once. We had heard that the road from Luang Prabang through the mountains was very windy and slow going and it turned out to be exactly that. The scenery was fantastic, very 'Swiss mountains like'. Our driver was very good, he didn't try to go too fast and although he did like to overtake on blind bends (something we noticed that all of our drivers in Laos tended to do, but then again there weren't many 'straights') he saved our lives on more than one occasion. Although the mini-van had been advertised as having air conditioning, the windows were all wound down for the duration of the trip. One one occasion as the van climbed a winding mountain road, we could hear the screeching of tyres but not see what was causing the noise. Next minute a large 4x4 came flying around the corner on the wrong side of the road and swerving all over the show, completely out of control. Our driver pulled off the road to the side as much as he could without us crashing into the side slope and the 4x4 slid towards us. At the last minute the 4x4 swerved past somehow just missing us!

After a short lunch break at a mountain village we had a slight change around in seating arrangements as a French girl had been feeling very sick. An Aussie guy and his German girlfriend volunteered to move from the front of the van to allow the travel sick girl and her friend to sit up front instead. This couple turned out to be Simon and Sajia who we spent the rest of the journey chatting to and swapping travel stories, they had travelled in Africa and Indoneisa earlier in their trip. Prior to travelling they had lived in Hamburg for five years and after travelling they plan to live in Melbourne.

We past through several mountain villages on the journey and saw glimpses of how the Laos villagers live. School kids walked together along the road to and from school and home, in other areas streams of kids were cycling together amongst the traffic. Ladies carried foods and produce in large baskets, some using the long wooden balancing carriers with baskets hanging either side. Mopeds, bicycles, tuk tuks were all loaded up with people, animals, product and some were carrying huge loads. Traditional Laos wooden houses were visible in all of the villages, with farm animals roaming free around the grass verges and on several occasions we would come very close to hitting a cow, or cows that had strayed into the road. As well as cows we saw water buffallos in the rivers, chickens, a wild boar and pigs. We also heard a pig squealing (like a pig) as it was bound up by locals, clearly for them it was going to be 'roast Pork' for dinner!
We arrived at Vang Vieng bus station, which once again was outside of the centre of town - which guarantees work for the local Tuk Tuk drivers who eagerly await the arrival of each bus. We shared a Tuk Tuk with Simon and Sajia having agreed that we both wanted rooms in a quiet part of Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is known as a party town, with the centre and 'island' being known for loud music, drinking and drugs which attract all sorts of characters and we definitely didn't want to be staying in the thick of the nightlife. Vang Vieng isn't all Ibiza ruined though and the town attracts tourists for rock climbing, caving, trekking, mountain biking in the astounding local mountain and river scenery. We found a guesthouse in a quiet part of town and the four of us went for a curry in the centre before taking a look around the bars. Most of the bars were fairly quiet in terms of customers, but very loud in terms of music - maybe we were a little earlier than the late night party animals for which the town is notorious. Free shots of Laos whiskey were being offered in many of the bars and a couple of bars were starting to get busier as we left the centre.

The next day we headed for Vang Viengs main tourist attraction 'Tubing', which consists of being given an inflatable rubber ring each, being driven 4km up river in a Tuk Tuk and then, well then it's very much up to the individual. If you prefer a quiet float down the river, get up early and get tubing in the morning before the masses of party tubers arrive. We had been incorrectly informed that tubing did not open until midday (because that's when most people start Tubing) and therefore we arrived just shortly before the party animals. As we left the Tuk Tuk we were offered free shots of whiskey and on entering the river in our tubes, we could see several riverside bars close by. The first was already packed with tubers drinking and relaxing in the sun. We floated down and stopped at the second bar which had added entertainment, including a water slide in which you drop from a great height into the river, a high zip wire and a 'swing'. We had read and heard about 'tubing deaths' which are apparently common on this stretch of the 'Nam Song river'. There are warnings in the Lonely Planet book that the river is fast and has under currents after the rainy season, claiming at least one life per year. However we had also heard about and seen people limping around or showing off bandaged limbs in the town centre from plummeting into water that was too shallow. The bar owners encourage tubers to drink and use their slides, swings and zip wires yet there appears to be no consideration of health and safety. Only in one bar did we witness any safety advice and that was being given by an English girl, who was explaining to adrenalin junkies not to let go of the zip wire until at least half way as the water for the first half is too shallow.... so don't slip then hey! It's not all bad, many of the tubers we saw were enjoying the slides and zip wires etc. without any injury to themselves, but we adopted a 'safety first' approach and stuck to the tubing. Many of the tubers congregate at the first two or three bars and never make it down the river back into the town, instead taking tuk tuks back after dark. The music was blaring in the first three bars creating a bouncing din, so we escaped floating down the river and stopping for a bite to eat at a quieter bar. In the afternoon we floated down further, enjoying the sun and mountain scenery. We stopped at 'last bar' and got talking to some rock climbers over a couple of beers, before floating down for another couple of kilometres back into the town centre. Once we got away from the first few bars, the tubing was much as we had hoped, very relaxing and enjoyable with great views.

Posted by NicChris 22.11.2010 06:31 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos - Luang Prabang

French Asia

sunny 32 °C

On our arrival in Luang Prabang we intended to get some cash from the cash machine at the airport. As we approached the ATM an Irish lad informed us that he'd just tried to take money out and that it had completed a transaction, made a noise like it was counting and dispensing cash, but did not provide him with any cash. Not wanting to experience the same problem, we gave the cash machine a wide berth. We had heard that US dollars and Thai Baht are also accepted for higher priced purchases in Laos due to the weakness of the local currency (Kip). We mananged to organise for a Tuk Tuk to take us to our hostel and paid in US dollars. The first thing we noticed on our journey was that they drive left hand drive vehicles on the right hand side of the road in Laos - the opposite to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore where we had visited prior to Lao. The majority of vehicles on the roads were mopeds and motorbikes, with many riders not wearing helmets and some really young kids also riding them. Junctions were chaotic to say the least, with pedestrians given no priority and traffic flowing in any direction it wanted to! That evening we learnt that all cash machines in Luang Prabang were not dispensing any cash, apparently they are not re-filled at the weekend and due to the weakness of the currency Lao cash machines empty very quickly. Thankfully we had some Thai Baht that we could pay for our evening dinner with. We walked through the main street, which is closed to traffic each evening to allow the night market to trade, and saw the many stalls that fill the long street selling all sorts of products, but mainly souveneirs as the market is clearly targeting tourists. The streets in Luang Prabang are a blend of Buddhist architecture, traditional Laos buildings, European and in particular old French style villas and it all comes together to make a beautiful ancient city. We made our way to a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet and enjoyed dinner alfresco with live Lao music and traditional costume dancing for entertainment. The next morning we hired bikes and explored the city further, riding around the river banks and visiting Temples including 'Phu Si' temples on th slopes a hill and offering fantastic views over the surrounding area. The beautiful countryside and mountain scenery were not what we had been expecting from Laos and was a very pleasant surprise. The next day we hired bikes again and as well as exploring the city further we went to the Vietnamiese embassy to apply for our visas.

Posted by NicChris 21.11.2010 19:22 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Chiang Mai

Thailand How We Imagined!

sunny 32 °C

After a connecting flight via Bangkok, we arrived in Chiang Mai late on Wednesday night. The first thing that we noticed was that it was't raining... hurray!!
The next morning we set out to explore the city on foot and walked past several of the many temples in the city. The traffic outside of the old town city walls which are surrounded by a moat (built 700 years ago to defend against Burmese invaders) was really busy with cars, tuk tuks and mopeds yet inside the narrow soi (alleyway roads) were quiet and contained many guesthouses, shops, bars, restaurants and homes. We really enjoyed wandering around the old town, taking a look in to craft shops, book shops and relaxing in the cafes with a fruit smoothie. We walked around the city visiting some of the many Temples and passing numerous buddhist monks going about their daily life.
We decided to book an activity day 'Elephant Training' and our guest house owners recommended a local family run company. The next morning we were picked up at our guest house by 'Woody' our Thai guide for the day. We stopped once more to pick up a French couple called Nicola(s) and Nataly and then drove for around an hour to a small village, during which time we learnt more about Woody and his life as an Elephant Trainer, Thai Boxer (he was fighting the next night) and how previously he had served in the Thai army. Woody explained that it was his Uncle who had set up the elephant rescue centre, as he had brought the animals from areas of the jungle where they had previously been used for work, such as logging - to the 'elephant centre' (their house). On our arrival we were provided with elephant training clothes to change into, which were 'very fetching' blue sweatshirts and pants! We then sat down at a table in Woody's family house set in the jungle and Woody informed us of the Thai words and combined actions that we would be needing to control the elephants. After practicing how to say the words in Thai, we were tested and all passed our exam! Then we were allowed to go and introduce ourselves to the elephants and we made ourselves very popular with them as our first task was to feed them sugar cane striaght into their mouths, which they loved so much that they kept giving us a kiss on our cheeks with their trunks - a very strange sensation! After their lunch, the trainers provided three elephants with a variety of musical instruments and they played a harmonica, a tamberine and a bell whilst dancing. This wasn't the sort of performance that we had signed up to the day for, as it was a bit too circus like - however the trainers insisted that the elephants enjoyed playing like this and it was certainly impressive how they performed together. Next we learnt how to climb up on to the elephants, with the elephants giving us a helping leg-up on to them when we gave them the instruction "Yoka" (foot up). The elephants were so big that it's quite hard to get up on to them at first, however once we'd clambered on a couple of times and sat on their necks with our legs behind their ears we were able to get up and down on our own. We practiced giving the elephants commands, "Bye" (forward), "Bow" (slow down), "Ute" (stop), "Saiy"(left), "Huwa" (right) and "Toy" (backwards) and our confidence started to grow that we might actually be able to ride them through the jungle later in the day. Just before lunch we were asked to join the elephants and sit on a 'chair' that they made for us with their trunks for photographs. Again, we weren't convinced that the trainers should be asking this of the elephants, however the elephants didn't appear to mind.
In baking hot sunshine, we then made our way to the family house across the street and enjoyed a delicious Thai lunch on the verander that had been cooked by Woody's mum. In the afternoon we mounted the elephants once again, this time in pairs on each elephant, with Nic and I on 'Christina' and we set off through the jungle. With a little support from the guides, we managed to steer our elephants along the path (albeit the elephants knew the path pretty well) and stopped a few times to let the elephants eat bushes and trees from the nearby undergrowth. After giving the elephants a break and more sugar cane, we rode them down to the river, where they entered the water and lay down in the cool water. Here we were provided with buckets and brushes and requested to wash the elephants, something we could tell that they really enjoyed. They played around in the water, which included a water fight whereby we soaked the elephants with buckets of water and they sprayed us with water their trunks. After this we rode the elephants to the nearby lake and Nic stayed on her elephant as it swam around the lake.

After a great day with the elephants we went our for drinks and food with Nicola(s) and Nataly in Chiang Mai. Nicola(s) is a policeman in Paris and Nataly works in a maternity unit in Paris, although both are from the Toulouse area and have moved to Paris for their work. We had a lovely evening together in an outdoor Thai restaurant down by the river.

We started taking our malaria prevention tablets in anticipation of our next destination, Laos - so if our blog gets more weird than normal - it's possibly due to one of the many potential side effects! The next morning we enquired about flights to Luang Prabang in Laos and were informed that flights were full for the next three days, however we decided to go to the airport anyway and after a couple of hours waiting around in hope of getting a late standby ticket, we managed to get on the flight due to some 'no shows'. Lao air have modern aircraft - however they are propeller planes and the turbulence we encountered was a little unnerving to say the least.

Posted by NicChris 21.11.2010 19:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Koh Samui

Drenched paradise!

rain 28 °C

The next day we took a seven hour bus and then an hour and half ferry to Koh Samui, spending the day travelling. It was raining throughout our journey and on our arrival at Koh Samui we were informed that many roads and resorts were flooded. We had planned to avoid the 'package tourist resorts' and head for the predominantly Thai areas of the island, however the floods stopped us from getting to our intended destination - Fisherman's Village. We jumped in a taxi with a couple we had met in the taxi queue, an Aussie guy and Irish girl and shared the journey to Mae Nam, which is nearby to Fisherman's Village. We checked in to the same villa resort that the couple in our taxi had booked, after they informed us that it was highly rate on Trip Advisor and cheap. Our room was an ornately decorated wooden hut, which had an outside bathroom (that was private thanks to a high fence, but open to the elements). We enjoyed Thai food from a nearby food stall and then treated ourselves to a dessert in the 'Swiss restaurant'. The Swiss restaurant was packed and the diners in there were all speaking German - it was very authentic! The owners are a Swiss guy and his German girlfriend. The reason the restaurant was so busy was that it was the last night before they closed for a 4 week holiday, their first break in 2 years. The next morning we took a walk down to the beach and encountered a pack of dogs on route. A local informed us that a couple of them tended to bite people and provided us with a stick and stones to 'scare them off'. Thankfully another local came out of her house and helped us to pass the dogs without the need for sticks and stones. The beach was completely flooded and the local lady informed us that the water had been as high as her house, the first time she had known this to happen. Rain continued to fall and every time we checked the weather forecast, it predicted worse and worse weather. The South of South East Asia was experiencing extremely heavy rainfall and when we looked at our planned route, the weather forecast remained bleak. So we made the difficult and disappointing decision to leave Koh Samui after only one day and reverse our planned route in the hope of finding better weather - and this meant flying to Chiang Mai (where we had planned to finish our travels).

Posted by NicChris 15.11.2010 09:03 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Phuket

Night Market Delights

sunny 32 °C

We took a ferry from Phi Phi to Phuket (pronounced 'poo-get') the largest island in Thailand. We stayed in Phuket town in a great hostel with very friendly Thai staff and visited the night market which was packed with stalls and customers. We enjoyed freshly cooked Thai food from the many food stalls on offer including the best Thai fishcakes EVER!
Phuket is famous for it's beaches however the weather was mostly cloudy when we were there so unfotunately we didn't get to sunbathe on any of them. We took a Songtaew to the Sirinat National Park and walked along the nearby beaches, seeing many luxury beachside hotels catering for package holiday customers.

Posted by NicChris 15.11.2010 08:51 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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