Wednesday, 31 March 2010

After staying one night in a hostel with no air conditioning and one small fan, we learnt our lesson and moved 2 doors down to a hostel that had both. Although we were giving up a free pool (small, shallow and with enough chlorine to burn skin and eyes). Chiang mai from what we could see, was made up of a new town and old town, though the architecture in both was exactly the same. The only difference betwene, was the old town was surrounded partially by a very new looking wall, and a very new looking moat. Most of the entertainment though was in the so called old town.

Our first full day we booked ourselevs into a cooking course. Similar to the lao course I took, we had a brief tour of the market, being shown some leaves, seeds and a variety of different coloured liquids (normally the fermented fish at different periods of decomposition). Thern we went back to the school and choose our dishes we wanted to cook. There were about 50 people doing the course altogether, and once we decided on our chosen dishes, the groups were divided into about 5 or 6. I made a chicken and noodle dish, spring rolls (which looked very professional if not slightly overstuffed), a penang curry with accompanying curry paste, a chicken and coconut milk soup, and a grenadin waterchestnut and coconut milk desert (which i will def be trying once i get home). We left feeling very stuffed, with only enough energy to go to the night market and buy some stuff we didnt need. The market here was similar to most other markets we had been 2. The streets were closed off to traffic, and stalls and stalls lined the pavements and food vendors filled the roads. You could buy anything from pen knives, t shirts to random little wooden trinket thingies to little toy frogs that made a croaking sound when you ran a stick along the grooves on its back (very popular in bangkoks khao san road).

The next day in chiang mai, I got myself onto the 'jungle flight' tour. This is a day long activity which involves being covered in a series of hooks and harnesses, and whizzing along zip wires 50 metres above the rainforest in the trees canopy. Me with my wimpish fear of heights, I thought it would do me good and it was well worth it. With 22 platofmrs, spiral staricases wrapping around trees 40 metres above the ground, suspension bridges and zip wires ranging from 50-300 metres long, it was a fantastic day. There were 6 others in my group - some who were equally nervous as me. The first platform was a mere 2 metres off the ground. When it came to my turn to go, I was hooked up to the ropes and pushed off. I was supported with a hook from my front was i was in a sitting postion. It took a few more go's until i finally had the nerve to let me hands hang free.

There were also a number of 'abseil' points, where you were hooked up, swung over a 50 metre drop and.... dropped. Some people requested a slow descent, but once i got my nerve I was plummeting with the best of em :D. Hooked onto the back, allowed you to face down onto the forest floor. The disadvantage is there is nothing really to hold onto. Advnatage, you can pose like superman as you flew across the jungle. It is also harder to leave the platfrom as you physically have to jump off - took a lot pf psyching myself up to jump off a 60 metre high platform.

The next thing on my mind, was the ever anticipated pesah which unfortunately was fast approaching. After meeting a jewish woman from south end, whilst I was getting a fish massge (obviously) she said the seder she went to in bangkok last year was amazing, so off i went to track down the chabad chiang mai. Not far from the hostel I booked the seder at 10 quid ahead. It was in a hotel off the night market. Accompanied with my ticket, i pushed past rows and rows of policeman, threw rows and rows of metal detectors and bag searchers, and i FINALLLY got into the seder room. There were a good 500 people there, most israelis but i sat on the english table. I have never been to a seder big than 40 before so it was an experience. We sang all the songs whilst we waited for the food, and I left before, if not during the grace after meals at the modest time of 10.30. It wasnt COMPLETELY perfect though, as they had potato instead of parsley, some sephardi crushed date concotion for charoset, and only small slices of egg dipped in salt water (a far cry from my 3 eggs). I came away with a smile on my face though, and feeling somewhat homesick :(. Needless to say i wont be keeping pesach this year, as without eating noodles and rice i would starve.

The next day I had a bad tummy, which im hoping was from the food i bought at the market the previous morning, and NOT from the seder. Later that day we caught our bus to bangkok. It was one of the better bus journies as the bus was nice, comfy seats and we watched avatar before i dozed off. At 5am we arrived in bangkok and shlapped back to our old friend the khao san road. We got a hostel for 100 baht a night (about 2 quid). You really do get what you pay for. As our time in thiland was coming to an end, we wanted to get rid of all our baht without having to get anymore out, so with that, cheap was really the only option. On the fifth floor, the room had a fan that barely moved, beds akin to slabs of concrete (covered with bizarre plastic sheets) a toilet shared by what seems like most of bangkok, and the beds themselves are shared with the local cockroach population, and being on the khoa san road, music and the sound of lady boys (and the noise of locals advertising ping pong shows and tailor made suits) is heard loud and clear through our windows (which dont shut) till the sociable hour of 10am. A great neon sign hangs right outside our window which the lack of curtains help little to stop. We were there for one night so we thought we might as well put up with it. Unfortunately money was too low to go to the floating markets so we just spent the day pottering around bangkok. I took a stroll to see the red shirt protestors, walked around the area a bit eating skewers from streets vendors and eagerly awaited dinner time - more skewers :). 2moz we are leaving on a jet plane to india. Landing in new delhi at 9pm, we have no guide books so we are basically going in blind. We have booked a cheap hotel just off the main bazaar. Lets hope we dont relive the same experience as we did with the first hostel we booked in bangkok - the 40p a night drug den...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

It happened finally and suddenly.... we left vang vieg. That magical place with mountains, caves, tubing, free alcohol and street bars airing nothing but family guy and friends, all doign cheap smoothies. After only a few days in vang vieg, gettin wildly drunk on a daily basis, cheap breakfast fry ups, zip wires, befriending (and massaging the feet of [dont ask] ) a few people in their rubber tyres whilst tubing on the river (as you do) and ultimately ending up at an outside bar/club with them, again drinking heavily after a day of a tiresome 10km kayakking stint, it was very easy to see why many people dont actually leave vang vieng. I was talkng to a random person in the club, who said she was passing through vang vieng with friends, drunk ended up asking for a job behind the bar and has now been there for 4 months - food and accomodation (a small bungalow overlooking the river) fully paid for. Vang vieng is definately going to be a place to return to in the future - when im succesfful and can afford to FLY!!! - no dam buses for me.

As i say though, unfotrunately we had to leave, and up north we went to luang probang. A very small town full of restored french colonial houses and narrow streets, it had an air of hoi an about it. It was definately more for the older traveller as hostels were mostly out of our price range. We managed to find one eventually though. In the i explored the small town. I walked down to the river (luang probang is on the corner of one of the mekongs tributarys). I walked in the warm shallow river for a bit, before climbing up the rock and crossing over the bamboo bridge to the viewing platform. From this platform you got panormaic views straight down the mekong river. Unfortunately (which we didnt know) is south east asia in march and april is a bad place to be because of the 'slash and burn'. At the peak of the dry season when all the ground is dry and vegetation is dying, large areas of this are burnt to clear the way for the new crops to be planted during the wet season. Visilbity in many areas is very poor and smokey, over the mekong area included. Hence the stunning views were somewhat hidden :(. I walked back along the bridge during 'luang probang bath time' when all the locals were washing and bathing in the shallow river. I went back pondering the idea of swimming the river the following day - you can never swim in too many rivers after all.

On the way back to hostel i got disrtacted by a restraunt and ended up booking myself on a cooking course. It was 28 dollars but well worth it. The next morning i met the group outside the cooking school and they tuk tukked us to the market. The tour guide took us around piles of weird looking leaves and vile looking liquids surrounding woman crouching on small plastic stools cleavering meat or dissecting random fruits. One of the more disturbing dishes we saw was called paedak. It is a salty and smoky sauce that accompanies most lao food. It is made by putting dead fish into a bowel of satly water, and waiting until it decomposes into a liquid. Further to this, another delicacy is to get some fresh chicken/duck eggs and wait until the insides rot to black. This creates a fine dipping sauce.... apparently.

We got back to the cooking school where we got into groups fo 2 and cooked the dishes demonstarted for us. We cooked a selection of noodle and rice dishes, luang probang salad, chilli dipping sauce and various broths. My breath smelt of lemon grass for days after and we were givena recipe book for our night time reading. The following day we went to..... yup another waterfall. This one was by the far the best one yet. It was not just one waterfall, but a series of small and large drops along the river. There were rock pools, hanging vines and fish that nibbled your feet as you swam. The water was bluer than msot swimming pools. The piece de resistance was a 50 foot high waterfall at the far side of the park. I climbed up the loose path alongside the falls to get to the top - carved out by numerous feet over the years. After a good amount of heaving and nearly losing a flip flop i made it to the top. I crossed the narrow river and took my kodak moment photos. It was then i found the wooden stairs leading right down to the river again.... I was fairly unimpressed i hadnt seen these steps BEFORE i tried to heave myself up a dam cliff face. Anyhoo, after more swimming and sitting under waterfalls, we left for home.

And true to every blog i have written, here is 'THE BUS JOURNEY!' An all encompassing 20 hour journey from luang probang to chaing mai in thailand. We got a tuk tuk to the bus station, a 14 hour bus to a tour company, another tuk tuk to the river, a long boat across the river, and then a final minibus to chaing mai. During this time we shared horro stories with other travellers about the quality of the various buses and boats that we travel on. Our contribution to the stroy, was one we heard on the way back from ratanakri in cambodia from an emotionally scared mother and her 3 year old son - on the public buses all bags and rice sacks are piled on the back seats and down the aisles. These bags on the back seat caught fire as they were covering the engine and a bus of well over 70 ppl (capacity 50) made for the single exit at the front pushing the mother down. No one spoke english and by the time the woman and her sone had climbed over the rice sacks and plastic lawn chairs in the aisle, the whole bus was full of smoke. Needless to say she sat in the front seat on the jounry back.

An american girl was saying how earlier in the month she went to koh phi phi in thailand. There were 3 boats and she was dissappointed she took the slowest one. However when she checked on the other 2 boats alongside, one was on fire and the other was sinking. People were treading water carrying their backpacks above their heads, ad it was down to the single boat to pick up the other floatng passangers. O well, these things happen i spose. It shoudnt stop you actually doing the things you want to do.

Our bus journey was pretty uneventful. Our bus was quite cushy, apart from the 15 lao people sitting on garden chairs in the aisle, and the complete state of the roads sending them flying round every corner (normally into me). We arrived across the border safely though, after what was probably the easiest crossing to date. A few forms, a few signatures and we were back in thailand.

Chaing mai is a massive city, and so far we have seen very little. Tomorow we may go to the shooting range for a bit, there are plenty of cooking classes to be had, and also there is 'the jungle experience' which hosts miles of suspended zip wires 50 feet over the jungles, forest bridges and platforms to view animals from. From here will go off to bangkok to see the floating market. This time next week we will be in delhi. It feels like looking forward to go on holiday all over again. I have seen little of india but have delhi has aways been a place i have wanted to go.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Due to time constraints and the fact that northern vietnam was covered in rain and fog, we decided to avoid ha long as visibility we were told, was awful. So to laos we went. The bus stopped at the border, we sorted out visa, faffed about with money and conversions and border control trying to scam us, and into laos we went - pouring with rain around 7am. Of course the bus has already gone to the border cafe... 1 km down the road, so in flip flops, shorts, t shirts and with minimal sleep, off we plodded in the rain, on the dirt track to the bus - WELCOME TO LAOS :D.

First stop the capital vientianne. This place is used mostly by travellers as a stop off point... and with us quite the same. There was little to do here so we booked into our hostel/prison cell for the night, and first thing in the morning we got a bus to vang vieng. This place really did make the previous journey all worth it. It is a smallish town completely full of tourists. The attraction is the river, and the massive tubing and kayaking industry on it. We hired a tube, tuk tuked to the tubing area and off we went. The catch here, was that we COULD ride the river all the way back to town, or we could simply go on a bar crawl in the many bars that lined the rivers length. For a distance of upto 700 metres, there were various wooden huts, platforms, loud speakers and free shots. Before we evn touched the water, we got ourselves a bucket of 'lao lao' (g-d knows wat was in it but it was bright yellow), this followed by a couple of free shots. We finally got into the river, riding out tubes about 3 metres, before someone threw a rope to us and pulled us into another bar. Some free shots later, trying to prove our worth throwing a bucket into a tyre (we failed) and getting nostalgic over freshers week, off we went to ANOTHER bar. On the other side of the river we got free shots (again) and free chips. Each bar also had high zip wires and high swings, where you climbed up around 8 metres or so, held on and swung high above the river. We were assured it was safe as the river had been newly dredged (unlike last year when the rocks were dangerously near the surface and ppl came away with broken legs). We also played beer pong with a random austrian guy called Flo. Needless to say me and Flo beat Alec and Emily :D.

Anyhoo, after losing the waterproof pouch that hung round my neck (which had my camera and money in it) getting pissed, finding my waterproof couch under one of the wooden floors of a bar, and getting euphoric, off we went down the river again. It was getting a bit late and alcohol was still flowing thick threw our veins. We bounced along the rapids and eventually pulled up to 'the last bar' and tuk tukked home.

Next day we ventured onto the river again for a spot of kayakking. It was a 10km run, and once again we stopped for a break... in the tubing area. So i went on the high swings again (this time sober and was far from brave) and got a bit of lunch before the final 5km stint.

Dinner was a VERY heavy indian and now im stuffed, i ache and im going to a bar tonight to meet with people i met earlier on the river. With a 9am start 2moz, things will not be pretty.... Its such a hard life :P. 2moz we going to luang probang which is meant to be better than vang vieng in terms of scenery. The whole tubing area was surrounded by stunning tree covered mountains so it may be hard to beat...

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Hoi an is by the far the niest place we have stayed. The old town is full of buildings no mroe than 2 floor high. All are covered in carved wooded balconies and balustrades, shutters and creeping plants. The streets are all in a grid pattern though, and each narrow lantern covered streets looks like the last, thus we found ourselves lost on a numbere of occasions. Our first full down in hoi an, alec took a bike to the see the marble mountains and me and emily rented a motorbike to see the market and beach that was 4km east of town. We navigated through the streets and parked on the pavement. After walking through a market full of clothing stores, fabric shops and lines of woman kneeling on the ground washing fruit, chopping raw fish and meat into bowels and weaving baskets, a large woman started talking to us and insisted we see her shop. She was a tailor - one of over 100 in the small town. We saw down in her shop, she gave us drinks and shoved a series of catalogues in our faces. She said that if we pick anything out of the catalogue, she and her family would replicate it. Obviously we were hesitant at first. Her name was emma, and she kept on saying 'Dont worry, if you happy emma happy. Be happy'. With a lot of self control.... i ended up ordering a pair of jeans, a pair of linen trousers and a nice blue shirt. Emily settled on a dress, a couple of blouses and a cardigan. We paid and left feeling quite proud of ourselves that we managed to get custom made clothes so cheaply (albeit clothes we didnt actually need). With that, we strolled around a bit more and found a fantastic little bakery on one of the street corners. I got myself a small pasison fruit chessecake and emily, a slice of chocolate mousse cake (we visited this bakery a further 3 times during our short stay in the town) we biked to the beach front. The beach was lined with palm trees and the sand was soft. However, it was also incredibley windy, overcast and around 15 degrees, so the beach was far from an attractive place as mahoosive waves crashed on sand blew all across the road.

We had a sandwich in a cafe opposite just as we saw alec pass us on his bike and we told him about our adventures. He told us me and emily should never be left alone again and he would never have bought anything from emmas shop. Anyhoo, the next day we went to view the clothes they made us. I ordered another shirt, emily ordered another dress, and alec walked out with a suit. Minutes later emily ALSO walked out with a suit. Again, feeling quite content we went back to the bakery.

A few days after our arrival, a bakery and a full warderobe later, we boarded the bus which would take us the rest of the LOOOONG journey up the coast to hanoi.

We arrived in hanoi around 8.30 am. Our hotel is cheap but is down a smallish alleyway which is lined, once again, with masive bowels of leaves, noodles, and chopped meat and fish. Hanoi from what we have seen is nto as impressive as other places. Maybe we have simply beein spoilt by the beauty and the peace of hoi an. We will stay in hanoi for a couple of days before making our way slightly east, possible to cat baa island. From here we can travel to halong bay and vietnam floating villages....

Monday, 8 March 2010

From cambodia into vietnam. The bus journey was short and comfortable, which is more than i can say for the whole 'getting into vietnam' shpiel. After repeatedly haviing to get on and off the bus giving in various bits of paperwork and our passports, we were eventually siphened into a small barely air conditioned customs hall with 2 desks at the front. After about half an hour waiting a small dumpy man came out and started calling out peoples names to go through. After misprouncing ALL our names incorrectly, we were EVENTUALLY in vietnam, and a short ride later we were dumped in ho chi minh (saigon). A cab ride to our hotel and we settled in. Saigon was by far the nicest place we have stayed in yet, if not manically busy. Unlike phnom penh, there was a strange sense of order in this city. Most buildings were no more than 4 metres wide, though varied dramatically in depth and height. On a road of 2 story buildings you could have one building that was 7 floors high - tall and thin it looked like the street was giving you the finger. Stretching over the streets were miles and miles of electrical wires - so many in sopme cases it completely blocked out shop sign names. In some of the dirtier areas, the wires had collapsed and hung feet from the horrifically high pavements.

The roads also left a lot to be desired. To cross busy roads we normally hid behind locals and followed closely behind them. We eventually got our confidence though. The trick was to simply walk into the road and all the bikes would pass around you - this method worked for us anyway. During our time in saigon, we went to the war remnants museum and the water park (obviously) where i ended up grazing my elbow (obviously). We were going to go to cu chi tunnels also (dug by the vietnamese as shelter during the war), but a 2 hour bus ride and time in general running thin, we decided to give it a miss.

One of the australians we met on the way back from ratanakiri suggested we go to the mekon delta, to a place called vinh long. We obeyed his demands and arrived in an almost deserted bus station. We got a cab to the arge and a barge across the mekong river to a small island called binh long. Built into a forest, there were no roads or pavements, just a simple 1 metre wide conrete path that strethed and connected round the island. The only mode of transport was motorbikes or walking. We stayed in a homestay, which at 12 dollars a night was on the pricier side, but all food was inlcluded. We and a few others were the only people in the place that night. After an hour or so on the hammocks, we were served dinner - a vast feast in comparison to what we were used to used to. Soups, noodles, spring rolls and a mahoosive fish which we filleted (completely mauled) and the owner taught us hw to make our own spring rolls with the vegetables, fish and leaves - fruit for desert consisted of dragon fruit and those that looked like lychees but tasted like melon and was covered in soft, red and yellow barbs.

The next day we got bikes and cycled round the small island, through the forests nearly getting run off the round on numerous occasions, and over narrow and railingless bridges over the various waterways through the island. Immensely hot and sticky, but fun none the less - and we got in our daily excercise. We were looking for a place to get water from and ended up stumbling across a zoo of all places. Hidden behind a small guest house, there was a large lakes with swan pedaloes, and a series of caged animals. We got our drinks and played some cards out the front - watched closely by all the people who passed us. Me thinks they thought we were simply anther zoo attraction, in whcih case e should have started charging. 2 young boys seemed absolutely fascinated by our playing of 'president'. Anyhoo, that night 20 french people were comingt o stay so we were ushered into a small more private side room in the hostel. Dinner was simliar to the night before, just slightly more noodles and fish :D.

We left the island early the next morning after a breakfast of omelette, jam and baguettes. Our overall plan was to get to hanoi, then bus it through laos to northern thailand. However, the mekong delta is right don south and hanoi is the very north - solution?! ANOTHER BUS JOURNEY!!! To get to hanoi straight from saigon would take 48 hours (yes thats right 48 hours!). We wanted to visit Hoi An though so that broke up the journey somewhat. We got on a bus that hads beds instead of seats - would have been comfortable if they wernt designed for a vietnamese body. A few inches too narrow and a few inches too short (especially for over 6 foot alec) we stopped numerous times on the 24 hour bus journey to eat noodles, soups and random other bits of meaty giblets covered in leaves. We were slightly unnerved by the fact that no one had actually heard of 'hoi an' and the bus dropped us off at a petrol station, the driver pointed down a turning and said 'hoi an, that way...4 km' and buggered off. Great. So we walked, and walked....and walked until we came to a petrol station. We asked for a cab/taxi/car, any variation but they still didnt understand. We eventually flagged down a bus full of vietnamese shool children. Already cramped, we squeezed in with our bags, me sitting in the aisle on a small plastic kiddy chair. Some girl next to emily practiser her english, and we discovered the bus was ACTUALLY going to hoi an and that it did indeed exist. A short time later they all started singing and clapping... as you do. We were on the school bus for about 10 mins, before one of the girls said that the driver wanted money. A short exhcnage and we gave him 50,000 dong (about $2.50). And with that, they waved us goodbye and dumped us by the side of the road and said 'hoi an that way' pointing down a turning. Great.

After 26 horus of travelling (luckily the weather is slightly cooler here - only about 20 degrees witha nice breeze) we still wernt here we wanted to be. A small group of people crowded round shouting 'moto' and 'HOI AN' at us, before we flagged down a passing taxi. He drove us into hoi an (FINALLY) and charged us the reasonable rate of 38,000 dong - just under $2. The guide book says hoi an is meant to be a quaint retreat, full of narrow streets and historical buildings. Though it also said hoi an is easy to get too, so we shall see how the next three days pan out.... :D

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Lake day 2day. We went off down to our good friends at the motor bike shop to rent some more bikes for the day. I got my red and black bike (which i appropriately called ladybug ;D ), emily called hers 'big red' and alec got some massive blue bike. It was down to us to fill em up with petrol so we rode 'our hogs' to the petrol station where emily realised her brakes didnt work and the bike wouldnt get out of first gear. So we took the bikes back and alec and emily ended up sharing. After missing the turning to the lake and ending up about 10km out of town, we EVENTUALLY got there, had some lunch and in we jumped. We swam in for a bit and I was taught/forced to dive in from the steps. I even had an audience in the form of a small bus load of cambodians and a monk, who refused to take their eyes off us as i belly flopped and flailed to my hearts content.

After some good lake action as the sun was starting to set, we got out to get changed into dry shorts - again watched by our friendly audience of a small bus load of cambodians and a monk (maybe they were simlpy in awe of our pasty and general overweightedness bodies). Anyhoo, after taking the bikes back to the shop (alec runnin out of petrol halfway so having to walk it some of the way) we went back to the hostel to pack. Spirits were particularly low as we were faced with the prospect of a 11 hour bus journey back to phnom penh.

At the bus station (dirt track and a few parasols) at 6am, we boarded the bus and off we went. We even befriended some aussie guy who taled for a goof 6 hours of the trip about his 11 month travels, and also a dutch mum who was telling us about how wen she was taking the bus from phnom pen to ratanakiri, the bags/chairs/rice sacks/general crap piled on the back seat caught fire and the bus had to be evacuated out the single exit at the front of the bus - as she said, it wasnt easy wen the bsu was loaded to double its capacity, with people sitting on plastic chairs in the aisles. So anyway, with that little horros story, thwere was only about 10 hours left of the journey anyway.

Pulling into phnom penh around 7ish, sprirts were particularly low. Home sickness was kicking in, all our stomachs were feeling particualrly dodgy and we were all hot and sticky from the dam bus. We got a tuk tuk to the nearest hostel, paid extra for air conditioning (which doesnt so much air condition as blow cold humid air into a small corner of the room), got sum pizza and went to sleep. We decided to stay and extra day in phnom pen to recover and just do nothing.

Next day, we woke up, went to the russion market to b rowse for some knock off clothes and bought our tickets to ho chi minh city on VIP buses (VIP meaning you dont have to sit on plastic lawn chairs in the aisle if the bus is overbooked). So up at 8 and 6 hours to vietnam. We have done SO much actual travelling over the past month but then we have covered a hell of a lot of ground and seen so much. The culture shocks keep on coming, from the local cambodia hospitals (a bed in the backroom of a pharmacy) to the general state of the roads (people dont actually drive on the right side, they just drive where ever there is room for their car/tuk tuk/mule, and just because a motor bike only has one saddle it doesnt mean you cant fit a family of 10, the family dog and the kitchen sink to the back of one. Through the middle of phnom penh we saw a motorbike being driven with 2 woman knitting on the back, and a bike going a good 30mph with thwe back guy holding a 15 foot ladder in the air. Vietnam is apparently no different, The guide book insists that if you walk with confidence into the road then at least ONE thing will stop for you, and if not, then just run. O well. Lets hope this isnt the last blog i write. Ive done well enough so far.....