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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Return to the UK and the 7.22 to Liverpool Street...

So that's it. Fini. Finito. It's all over.

As we sit on the baking-hot bus travelling back to Bangkok we gaze out of the window and silently ponder the last six months, and the many fantastic experiences we have had. It's 35 degrees outside,(and about 37 inside due to the lack of air-con) so I whip out my notebook and start doodling to pass the time. I'm a list kinda gal, I like the feeling of organisation, so I start to absent-mindedly jot down the things we'll miss about travelling, the things we won't miss and the highlights of the trip...

Things we'll miss about travelling:

1.The complete freedom - being able to jump on a plane at a moment's notice to somewhere completely random and exciting.
2.Watching pink-and-orange sunrises and sunsets.
3.Interacting with wildlife we could only ever usually see on the Discovery channel.
4.Meeting interesting people with amazing stories to tell.
5.Discovering new cultures and learning more about history than we ever did in the classroom at school.
6.The low prices.
7.Wall-to-wall sunshine every day and the bluest skies imaginable.
8.Drinking alcohol every day and not being regarded as an alcoholic.
9.Not getting hangovers from the aforementioned alcohol - how comes the sunshine removes the need to mope about?
10.Not having to go to work.
11.Cute baby animals everywhere - most countries don't believe in (or can't afford) neutering.
12.Gorgeous exotic food, rather than British stodge for dinner.

Then I got to thinking about the things we wouldn't miss at all, in a desperate attempt to convince myself that I was, in fact, happy to be going home...

Things we won't miss about travelling:

1.Cockroaches, mosquitos, sand flies, tics, poisonous centipedes,tarantulas..the list of bugs goes on and on...
2.28hr bus journeys, on bumpy unsealed roads and with malfunctioning aircon.
3.Filthy squat toilets.
4.Having to haggle over the price of EVERYTHING
5.The sound of locals hawking up phlegm every few minutes.
6.Bad haircuts. (mine)
7.Having to wear the same 5 (usually dirty) tops for 6 months.
8.Staying in grotty hostels where you can hear people fart in the next room through a wafer-thin partition.
9.Unidentified fried Objects and other culinary nightmares.(usually involving fried bananas..and sometimes chickens feet.)
10.Carrying 20+Kg's on our backs every day.
11.Being referred to as 'backpackers.' So uncool.
12.Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the natives, hence being targets for scams and rip-offs at all times.

To be honest, the second list was written a little half-heartedly. Even though these things may have seemed a little tedious at times, they were all part of the rich experience, and I must (begrudgingly) admit, that I'll probably even miss the annoying things about travelling after a few weeks back to the drudgery of life in the UK (depressed, moi?), back to the monotony of work, responsibility and the 7.22 to Liverpool Street...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The retirement village formerly known as Cha-Am

Liam and I had both agreed at various points throughout the trip, usually after a gruelling bus journey, that we'd definitely, absolutely need to spend at least a week at the end of our adventure doing sweet FA, just lazing about by a pool somewhere hot, reading cheesy novels and generally relaxing. Jo, a hippified Aussie, agreed, "You'll be dreading going home, right? So, the answer is to make the final week of your trip the laziest, most boring time, so that is goes reeeaally slowly and makes the trip seem longer." I liked her logic.
So, after an action-packed few days in Chiang Mai, we took an overnight bus to Bangkok, then from there took another bus for 3 hours south, to a small town called Cha-Am.
The Lonely Planet said that this was the place that Thais often chose for a holiday - long white sandy beach,a quiet and safe choice.Plus only 3 hours from Bangkok so covenient for the return flight home.
What the Lonely Planet didn't mention, however, was that you had to be over the age of 73 to get in. Instead of a passport, you'll need a bus pass.
If you visit a holiday destination to find the beach full of deckchairs instead of sun loungers, it can only mean one thing. The blue rinse brigade are out in force.
"Well, we DID want somewhere quiet" we reasoned, as we plotted down next to the (almost deserted) pool at out hotel. "Although we didn't anticipate that the silence would be due to the fact that everyone around here is deaf."
There are plenty of upsides to a resort full of golden oldies. The first one being that at least there would be no screaming kids launching themselves noisily into the pool, surreptiously urinating at every opportunity. Although you might get a few OAP's dribbling into it instead.
Another good thing about being surrounded by pensioners is that I can strut around poolside in my bikini, safe in the knowledge that I have the best, fittest body in the vicinity. And all my own teeth.
After doing the backpacker trail for 6 months and being amongst the oldest travellers (the majority are Sloanes on gap years, funded by Daddy. Bitter,moi?), it's quite a novelty to suddenly be the youngest couple in town.
Despite saying all this,we've had a great time - the hotel is lovely, all modern decking and an infinity pool, and as most Thais have an aversion to tanning, we've often got the beach/pool to ourselves.
Thais recoil in horror at the very idea of sunbathing - you try buying a body lotion without it containing whitening ingredients.Even the deodorant has skin-bleaching properties. I tried to buy suncream the other day, but the only one I could find in 7/11 (which is massive over here) boasted an "anti-melanin whitening effect." In a suncream?! Go figure...I guess we all want the opposite to what the good Lord gave us: there we are, baking ourselves in blister-inducing red-hot sun, teeth gritted desperate for a bit of colour on our oatmeal complexions, whilst the naturally olive-skinned locals are hiding under a parasol, fully-clothed trying not to let a single ray get near them, desperate for the pasty-white squid skin that is typical of us Brits. They should try a winter in London - they'd be anaemic-looking in no time. They love the sea, but only fully-clothed. I even saw a gaggle of schoolgirls swimming in the sea the other day, fully-clad in their entire school uniforms. The boys just wade in in their jeans and t-shirts.Even when out and about on their motorbikes, the locals wear gloves upto their armpits and balaclavas, lest they might get, horror of horrors, a suntan. Weird behaviour.
So, we've been swimming in the pool, lounging around reading aformentioned cheesy novels, marvelling at how warm the sea is here (and not because a child has just pissed in it next to you), strolling along the beach, and getting up at 6.30am to watch impossibly beautiful sunrises on the seafront. Perfect.
In fact, the only downside has been the evenings, when we feel like veritable outcasts, not part of the Saga crew, who sit in quiet restaurants playing bridge, glaring at us as though we're a couple of trouble-making teeneagers when we rock up and order a couple of beers. Anyone would think we were wearing hoodies and threatening to stab them for their pensions, such is their look of horror that anyone under the age of 50 has had the audacity to enter the resort. Coupled with the fact that we've not met a single English person here (these OAP's are all German or Scandinavian) and we've had some pretty quiet nights, I can tell you.
Anyway, the tans are coming along well. Although, when we're rotating ourselves on the sunbeds like a couple of hogs on a spitroast, it can be a bit off-putting catching a glimpse of the old dears sitting across from us, all saggy-skinned and mahogany-coloured, sun-damaged beyond recognition. (David Dickinson eat your heart out).It's like fast-forwarding on your own life, seeing what the years of sunworshipping will eventually do to you. It's not quite terrifying enough to stop us slapping on the bronzing oil just yet though...

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Elephant trekking and bamboo rafting

The next day we were picked up at the crack of dawn by our tour guide, who was to take us to visit the Karen tribe, one of the many tribes who had fled persecution in Myanmar (Burma) and are among the estimated 130,000+ refugees who live in remote little villages in northern Thailand, speaking their own dialect and living a simple existence.
After an hour or so drive from Chiang Mai, we were ready to begin trekking to meet these people. Despite having travelled for almost 6 months, Liam and I still managed to wear the wrong shoes, and stubbed our toes in our flip-flops on numerous occasions as we climbed up steep hills in the forest to get to the village. To be honest, it was all a bit of an anticlimax - although they lived in little bamboo huts and showed us how they made fabrics by weaving the cotton which they'd coloured using vegetable dyes, they also told us how they made regular forays into Chiang Mai to sell their goods at the markets, and I'm sure I saw one of them with a Blackberry...
Ok, so I lied about the Blackberry, but the point is they weren't exactly tribes as I expected, all strange rituals and stretched necks etc. The only way in which they differed from other villagers we'd already met was the fact they chewed red betel nuts continously, giving them wide, gummy grins, only a handful of teeth between the lot of them.
Afterwards, we continued trekking until we came to a waterfall, and cooled off on the rocks for a while before stopping at a homestay for lunch - sweet and sour chicken, rice and pineapple. We gobbled it down, eager to get to the main event of the day - elephant trekking.
As we came to the elephant camp, I could hardly contain my excitement..there were several huge elephants as well as one tiny baby, too cute for words.
Never ones to miss a business opportunity, several locals rushed up to sell us bananas for the elephants. We obliged and climbed up to the platform to board our elephant of choice. I'd forgotten about the bananas in my hand as I went to get on the elephant's back, but it hadn't escaped the notice of another elephant behind, who was wrapping his trunk around my arm and trying to grab the bananas whilst I wobbled about, shrieking as I dodged his wet nostrils.
The guide encouraged Liam to sit behind the elephant's ears, whilst he sat alongside me in the chair on his back, and Liam soon discovered why - it's pretty uncomfortable sitting behind the ears whilst the elephant jerks you about as he walks. It was great fun to ride on the elephant's back, his trunk coming back over his head every few minutes to indicate he wanted another banana. The first time he did it I didn't realise he'd curl his trunk around the food, and stuffed the banana up his right nostril instead. Doh! I even peeled it, much to the guide's amusement, who showed me what to do instead..chuck about 5 bananas in their skins straight into his mouth. He was a stubborn creature, often refusing to budge until I handed him another banana.
"Giving him them one at a time is like feeding a man a bowl of rice, grain by grain," Liam observed, so I got a little more generous and gave him 2 after that.
At one point he refused to move at all, despite me giving him a load of bananas, so the guide shouted at him, then jumped down to the ground and started poking a stick in his ear until he finally started walking, with a sigh. I'm soft at heart, (yes,really) and felt quite sorry for him, so much so that I bought him another load of bananas, which was probably what they hoped I'd do I guess.
To get back to Chiang Mai, we took a bamboo raft down the river, which seemed quite a pleasant option until we came to some rapids. A few bamboo poles strung together with vine aren't really your first choice of transport in such situations, yet our guide managed to avert a disaster using another bamboo pole to steer us past the jutting rocks. Nevertheless, we all got soaked and found the journey pretty hair-raising at times. What is it with us and dangerous watersports, when we barely visit the local swimming pool at home?
Still, it had been a fun, and memorable day and we were relieved to be back on dry land and heading back to Chiang Mai for a few cold Chang (which means elephant in Thai) beers and to reflect on our day...

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Thai Masterchef

Since we'd enjoyed Thai food so much, we decided to enrol on a cookery course, in order to recreate our delicious dinners when we had to return to the UK, which was coming up sooner that we cared to think about.
We were collected from our guesthouse by the chef, who then picked up various other wannabee cooks like ourselves and bundled us all into the back of his pick-up before taking us to the food market, to teach us how to select the best ingredients for our meals. We all smelt the aromas, felt the textures and marvelled at the many varieties of vegetables that we'd never heard of, let alone knew what to do with, all the while ignoring the flies and cats which were climbing all over the produce.
The chef gave us some meal options, selected the ingredients, then whisked us to his studio to show us how to cook up a storm...
The meals we were to learn how to cook were: Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup, Pangang Curry, Sticky rice with Mango and Chicken with Cashewnuts.
We all had our own workstations and were shown how to chop the various ingredients, which sounds obvious, but there's a knack to cutting chillies without blinding yourself in the process. He taught us to cook the meat for only about a minute or two, not the usual 20 minute-plus blast that I give my stir-fries at home, one eye on Eastenders and my mobile tucked under my chin.
We watched him avidly whilst he demonstrated the various stages then went back to our workstations and...did something completely different. He just did everything so quickly and expertly and made it all look so easy - it reminded me of Home Economics lessons at school all over again. I wished I'd paid more attention to those HE lessons now, and so does Liam, since my cooking skills leave a lot to be desired. I can cook a mean microwave lasagne though. (Joke.)
To our amazement, Liam and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and even managed to produce some pretty authentic dishes at the end of it, which the class all ate together, feeling very pleased with ourselves and vowing to flex our new-found culinary abilities once we get home. Ok, so I did put a little too much ginger into my Tom Yum soup which caused a choking fit so severe that I thought Liam was going to have to perform the Heimlich manouvre on me, but apart from that the meal was perfect, if I do say so myself. I wonder if our mouth-watering Thai dishes will taste quite so delicious when we're in front of the telly in Romford....

Tired tigers

We met a local tuk-tuk driver called Gary (not his real name obviously, but what he called himself so that tourists could pronounce it) and did a deal with him to drive us to the tiger sanctuary that we'd heard about, where you can get into the cage with them.
Gary was the Thai equivalent of Delboy, about 50 years old with a slickback hairstyle, dark shades and a glint in his eye. A real character, a charmer. When we stopped for petrol in his multi-coloured tuk-tuk, it was HIM who bought US a drink, when the usual procedure is for the tourist to buy the driver a drink on a long drive. He pointed out all the main attractions on the bumpy journey out to the tigers.
When we arrived, the place looked like Disneyworld, such was the professional appearance and efficiency of the organisation.(I'm not saying that in a derogatory way, only our previous experience of such attractions had been a rundown shack with a wooden handwritten sign and the manager asleep in a hammock.) It soon became clear from the crowds that this particular attraction makes serious money, not least since the cost of 15 minutes in the tigers cage cost around 10 pounds per person, a lot by Thai standards.
Next, we had to select which size tigers we wanted to "play" with. The babies looked cute, the adults looked scary, so we opted for the medium-sized animals.
It wasn't until we were being led towards the tiger's cage that I began to get nervous, and told the guide as much. He laughed and laughed, and when we came face-to-face with the beasts it soon became obvious what it was that he found so amusing...the animals were all snoring their heads off, completely out of it. We were told to take off our shoes and approach the tigers from behind, never attempting to touch their heads or front paws. This precaution was all for show, pretty ridiculous since the animals were all blatantly drugged up to the eyeballs on tranquilisers. We could have marched through there with a brass band in tow and they wouldn't have batted an eyelid.
"How come they're so sleepy?," I asked the keeper as we tiptoed into their cage, going along with the charade. Said keeper, who had been chatting away a few minutes earlier,mysteriously developed a classic case of selective hearing and chose to ignore my probing questions.
We were encouraged to cuddle, stroke and pat the tigers, which we did as the photographer snapped away. The tigers were gorgeous creatures,all soft fur and huge paws. They looked well-cared for, if a little lethargic; the keeper had to drag one of them over by his feet to get him to pose for the pictures. He even had the front to tickle the tigers noses with their tails, to which the tigers barely responded. It was at this point that we agreed they MUST be drugged - you can't even do that to my cat Ronnie without him trying to bite you, let alone a full-blown tiger.We could've prised their mouths open and stuck our heads inside and they'd have just yawned.
Even so, when the keepers encouraged us to lay our heads on the tigers' stomachs for some more photos I still felt a little nervous, which comes across in the pics as we're sporting fixed, Wallace and Gromit-style grins, which look faintly ridiculous since the terrifying, wild animal in the photo happens to be unconscious.
After our final photoshoot which involved us spooning two dozy tigers on the floor we'd had enough of mugging ourselves off and gave someone else a chance to pose with the couple of comatose creatures, whilst we went off to feed the camel, which, whilst not quite so exciting, was at least awake.
We visited the rest of the tigers, only one of which was pacing the cage furiously whilst the rest looked lazily on. It was at least 30 degrees, but even so, this lot were like a bunch of rag dolls. We were able to get really close to them and took some great pics, but we still left feeling a little short-changed and sorry for the animals. Although I don't know quite how we were expecting to rub their tummies and stroke them had they not been doped - we felt a bit guilty afterwards, and despite having enjoyed the experience of seeing the tigers close-up,wondered whether we should have supported such an attraction after all...

Chiang Mai

So, how to travel back to Thailand? We visited a tour operator in Luang Prabang to find out our options. There were 4. It was like a question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", albeit a no-brainer, early one,the one worth about 100 quid.

How would you travel to Thailand from Laos...?

a. By local bus and minibus taking 22 hours.
b. By local bus and speedboat taking 11 hours.
c. By plane taking 55 mins.
d. By slow boat, taking 2 days.

I mean,you wouldn't exactly need to use up many lifelines on this one, would you?
We'll go for c please Chris, I mean Miss, we stammered, taking the easy option for the first time in the entire trip. I know, I know, "the journey is as important as the destination" and all that traveller blurb you hear whilst doing these trips, but we were seriously over all the loooong bus journeys. "Real" travellers would've probably taken the slowest, most painful option, in order to have a story to tell, but just for once we chose the easy option. We booked a flight.
It felt very strange to be in Laos one minute and then in Thailand less than an hour later, so accustomed had we become to laughably slow and bumpy bus journeys. It was a novelty, a nice one, to travel in comfort for once, and we arrived at our guesthouse fresh and happy. Weird.
Chiang Mai is a busy city, less frantic than Bangkok, but still teeming with traffic and life.There are over 300 temples, almost as many as in Bangkok, and there is a 700year old wall and moat which surrounds the old city, built to protect the Thais from Burmese invasion.
Our guesthouse was located on a tiny sidestreet, an alley really, which suited us just fine as it was cheap (7 quid a night, not to be sniffed at), had cable TV and was very quiet, despite the fact that there were loads of girly bars and cheesy "clubs" nearby. We found the cheapest restaurant in town (not difficult, just look for fleabitten travellers in tie-dyed cotton pants) and chowed down on pad thai and drank Chang beer for about fifty pence each. I turned my nose up at the many hippified "backpackers" (I hate that word) we came across as most of them had filthy matted dreds and looked in need of a good wash. I wanted to get them in a headlock and tip a giant vat of Head and Shoulders over their mangy heads. They were giving us travellers a bad name. You wouldn't catch me with unstraightened hair, let alone the lice-infested tresses they were sporting. As someone once said, "there are no ugly people in this world, only lazy ones." This lot must've been bone-idle.
We had agreed to use Chiang Mai as a base for our elephant trekking, plus we also wanted to go to a cookery class (Liam too!) to learn how to perfect some of the Thai dishes we'd really grown attached to over the last few months. I never thought I'd be eating noodle soup or pad thai for breakfast but I've actually loved the food here and we regularly choose noodle soup first thing in the morning.
We booked ourselves onto a few activities and got an early night, ready for our first excursion in the morning - climbing in a cage full of tigers....

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is around 6 hours north of Vang Vieng by bus, which was relatively painless compared to previous journeys. The road was extremely scenic, if a little too winding for comfort, and I felt compelled to keep one eye on the bus driver who was shouting into his mobile phone whilst tackling hairpin bends, sending us perilously close to the steep edge of the dusty mountain road. Every time we took a sharp turn I slid into the Chinese guy sitting next to me who was wearing the tiniest shorts (that even the Cheeky girls would've baulked at) and sweating profusely. I thought he'd have to be surgically removed from my right leg by the time we arrived in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang has greatly increased in popularity with tourists since the Asian tsunami, which means that prices have also taken a huge hike. More built up and upmarket than our previous destination, Vang Vieng, we had to traipse around town, backpacks in tow and dripping in sweat, looking for a reasonably-priced room for quite some time, and even then we had to pay double what we'd paid in Vang Vieng.
Luang Prabang has many swish boutiques, expensive restaurants and a selection of markets selling handicrafts, silk scarves,paper lanterns and decorative umbrellas. It is set alongside the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and has lots of places to relax and watch the sun set over the river whilst enjoying a glass of wine.
The buildings are old French-style colonial houses mixed in with wooden huts and bungalows and it is a good base for visiting the local waterfalls and bear sanctuary, as well as doing elephant trekking and hikes.
We decided that watching the sunset over a nice cold glass of white wine would take the sting out of the price we'd just paid for the room (which was only really about 20 quid a night,not exactly robbery,but expensive to a couple of broke travellers) so walked down past a few golden temples to the riverfront where we did just that. Feeling our blood pressure drop considerably with every delicious mouthful, we chilled out here for a while (not too long, the wine was pretty expensive) before going for dinner.
The next day was Liam's birthday, which was spent exploring the town, wandering around the markets and having a "romantic" dinner at a table about an inch away from all the other couples packed in like sardines to celebrate Valentines Day. We'd been kind of hoping that people didn't celebrate Valentine's Day here but no such luck - romance-by-numbers was the order of the day, which is therefore, by definition, unromantic. The pace of life in Laos is so laid-back that we could barely muster the energy to do anything, and instead of going out to the Hive Bar as planned, ended up falling asleep at about 9pm. Very rock and roll.
The next morning we found a gorgeous bakery and ate delicious wholegrain bagels, before exploring one of the local temples and then heading off to visit the waterfalls in a pickup with a Canadian couple, who I insulted about 2 minutes into our first conversation by mistaking them for Americans. Oops! Anyone would've thought I'd asked them why they invaded Iraq.Stony silence all round. Once the moment (and the tumbleweed) had passed, we went on to have a great day with them.
Our tuk-tuk driver bumped and jolted us for around an hour until we finally came to Tat Kunag Si, a beautiful spot featuring a wide multi-tiered set of waterfalls cascading over limestone formations into bright turquoise lagoons below. We climbed up to the top of the waterfalls (no easy feat in flip flops) and walked all around them, before cooling off at the bottom in one of the beautiful, but freezing,bright-blue pools. Locals were swinging from ropes and launching themselves into the lagoon oblivious to the sub-zero temperatures, whilst we shivered and climbed out again before we lost all feeling in our lower bodies. A group of Buddhist monks were also cooling off in one of the nearby lagoons, so I snuck up for a few clandestine snaps of the disrobed young monks. They didn't see me but I still felt a bit guilty. Not guilty enough to delete the pics though, eh? (I even caught a few monks having a sneaky cig in the grounds of a temple once but didn't manage to photograph that one, so consoled myself with these snaps instead.)A sanctuary for sun bears was also nearby which we wandered around for a bit before heading back to town.

The next morning I set my alarm for 6am, as I wanted to attend the Alms Giving Ceremony, which takes place every morning in the centre of town at sunrise. This ritual involves around 400 monks dressed in saffron robes forming a procession as they walk through the town, receiving offerings of rice and fruit from local people. Our guesthouse was surrounded by temples, and we often heard the low rumble of drums each morning to mark the ceremony, but as yet we hadn't got up in time to actually participate. Liam would rather sleep than attend, so I snuck out of bed, dressed quietly and set off.
Out in the street, the sun was beginning to rise and I could hear the drums in the distance. The streets were empty, save for a few street vendors selling offerings for the monks, so I paused to buy some grossly overpriced fruit (should've gone to the market), before kneeling down on a bamboo mat to await the monks. There are all kinds of rules in Buddhism, such as don't stand higher than a monk, always kneel instead, don't touch or look at the monks too closely, don't point your feet towards them. The list goes on, so for all I knew I may have inadvertently insulted them in some way, but I did my best to look humble and respectful, which is more than I can say for the other tourists nearby who just snapped away about an inch from their faces, and didn't give them an offering.
As the monks approached I got my bananas at the ready, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. The procession filed past, the monks opening their large silver urns as they shuffled by, and I gave each one a small offering. I looked from side to side to check I was doing the same as the locals and I seemed to be so I began to relax.
After my offering had been accepted I retreated to take a few snaps. It was a fascinating sight - a long line of bright orange robes snaking down the dusty roads, set against the bright pink and orange sky of sunrise, local people kneeling on the side of the road silently offering gifts to the monks, the sound of drums filling the air.
It was almost time to leave Luang Prabang, so now we had to plan our onward journey back into northern Thailand - next stop, Chiang Mai...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

more perilous watersports..bring on the kayaking

Not content with almost drowning at the tubing, within 2 days we were back in the river, this time for a spot of white-water kayaking. As you do.
We'd had a day of just relaxing by the river in hammocks and reading our books, watching a perfect sunset behind the mountains, and had seen several groups of kayakers passing by. We'd occasionally glance up lazily and offer a gentle wave, but by the end of the day we were dying (not literally, we hoped) to have a go ourselves. Richard and Bongo were up for it to, which was a touch as we'd nominated them as our dedicated lifesavers.
After yet another full English (note to self:must join gym when we get home), we passed the usual tuk-tuk-load of invalids being shipped back from the local medical centre after their tubing and stepped up to the watersports centre, bold as brass.
After shelling out for the pleasure of 3 terrifying hours kayaking down a fast-running, obstacle-filled river we climbed aboard the tuk-tuk with our kayaks on the roof and we were off.
Within about 10 minutes of our kayaking lesson and then sliding gently into the murky water, Liam and I had capsized, which I wasn't impressed about as I'd just applied my mascara and GHD'd my hair. We'd been going well, working as a team (will wonders never cease?) and were feeling confident when we'd come to a rapid and hit a rogue tree branch jutting out of the water, sending us flying.
This time, however, we had the sense to wear lifejackets, not too proud to look like geeks if it meant we'd actually finish the trip with a pulse.
Trying to clamber back into the boat was not easy with a strong current dragging you forwards over rocks and it was with a most ungainly fling of my legs that I managed to haul myself aboard, drowned-rat stylee. Not a good look."Why didn't I bring my compact for touch-ups?" I berated myself, "or at the very least some battery-operated straighteners".
Richard and Bongo watched with amusement, that is until they too capsized a while later. This kayaking business is not as easy as it looks...
We were grateful when our guide suggested we take a breather at the tubing bars further upstream, and we left him in charge of the kayaks whilst we had a quick Beerlao..and another...and another.
Funnily enough, we were all much better at kayaking after a few beers, were much more co-ordinated as we rowed and steered our way down the river like an olympic team...
That evening we celebrated our watersports prowess with a few whisky buckets at the Smile Bar in town and planned our next leg of our visit to Laos. We'd already stayed in Vang Vieng for 2 nights more than our planned 3 nights,such was the beauty of the area, and although we could've stayed there much longer we knew that we really should continue our journey to Luang Prabang, 6 hours north by bus...

Tubing down the Mekong in Vang Vieng

The bus journey to Vang Vieng takes a mere 4 hours from Vientiane - I don't think we could've handled another nerve-fraying all-dayer on a ramshackle local bus, so were grateful for the short journey time.
We were sad to leave Vientiane, but fickle tourists that we are, instantly fell in love with Vang Viene and it's setting, and Vientiane was forgotton almost immediately.
We stepped off the bus, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a guesthouse (he told us to walk and promptly went back to sleep - so refreshing!) and started walking down to the riverside in search of accommodation. The sun was beating down on us and our packs are getting heavier by the day (plus I was carrying that huge chunk of antique wood under my arm too!) so we couldn't wait to find somewhere and settle down with a Beerlao (the local beverage).
We discovered a bamboo bridge, stumbled across it and collapsed at the nearest guesthouse. Unfortunately it was already full but the kindly landlady directed us to another cluster of bamboo huts nearby, where we agreed a price of 80,000 kip per night, which is a satifyingly cheap 7 quid between us. Nice!
Now the accommodation was basic - a bamboo room on stilts with a bed, mozzie net and small shower and toilet - but when the view is as amazing as the one we had it was an absolute steal. There was a hammock on our veranda, where you could kick back,relax and take in the stunning scenery - huge,steamy mountain ranges, lush green valleys, the Mekong river where cows and water buffalo were drinking and local children were playing on little wooden boats. It was one of the most idyllic scenes of th entire trip and we sat for a while drinking it all in, all too aware that in a few short weeks we'd be back in the ratrace of London life...
Shrugging off such depressing thoughts we explored the town, which took all of about 20 minutes. Vang Vieng is small, full of tourists (unfortunately, but as we are tourists too we are hardly in a position to complain) and is set up for fun, fun, fun...
We had a few refreshing beers (yep, I'm even drinking beer now like a real traveller) and bumped into Richard and Bongo for the umpteenth time. As everyone is doing a similar route it's not uncommon to come across the same faces in several different countries. We decided to make a plan for the next day - partaking of the local pastime...TUBING.
The next morning we had a full English to line our stomachs for the day ahead and joined the queue to go tubing. Although we'd seen various injured foreigners sheepishly hobbling around town the previous evening and blaming it all on the perilous tubing, we were undeterred and eagerly signed the disclaimer to say that yes, we could swim, and no, if one of us drowned/injured ourselves we wouldn't take legal action. We should have taken heed of the fact that the entire town looked like they should be on the set of casualty, such were the number of bandaged invalids. I did give Liam a knowing look as he happily signed away that yes he could swim and pointed out the lifejackets but he was full of male bravado and was having none of it. Little did we know what was to come...(cue ominous music)
For those of you not in the know, "tubing" involves floating down the Mekong river in a huge lorry tyre inner tube, being carried along by the current. The riverbanks are lined with myriad bars blaring out house music and have a general party atmosphere. The bar staff throw you a rope and pull you towards their bar, then when you are close enough they stick out a bamboo pole, you grab it, and they haul you into their bar.Genius! Cue lots of dancing, drinking, sliding down giant slides and swinging from zip lines. Brilliant fun, but with an air of danger - water, rocks, ropes and alcohol don't always mix so well...
We arrived, rubber rings in hand, and had a quick drink at the first bar for dutch courage before flinging ourselves into the murky water in our tubes. The water seemed relatively calm as we were carried gently upstream. I stopped worrying about Liam's lack of swimming skills as we had great fun being hauled from one bar to the next against a stunning backdrop of mountains and lush green forests,with all our favourite house tunes filling the air.
After several hours and several beers, we were happily dancing away at a bamboo bar on stilts above the river when I realised that all the tubes had gone.Had they been pinched by fellow travellers who'd swum to the bars then nabbed a tube without paying, or was it a cunning ploy by the tube owners so that people couldn't get their 7 quid deposits back? We'll never know...Noone seemed too bothered by this fact and insisted that we could easily swim or even wade to the next bar, which was only a few hundred metres away.
Bolstered by booze, we all agreed to wade through the shallow water to the next bar. As we climbed into the cold water, I was aware that the current here was much stronger, but we just lifted our feet and allowed the current to pull us along. There was quite a large group of us, and I was slightly ahead of Liam. Suddenly, the shallow water became really deep and my feet were swept from under me, forcing me to swim the rest of the way. Liam had been practising his swimming throughout the trip so I wasn't yet worried, but as I turned around I realised that Liam was in difficulty, thrashing about and going under the water. I quickly jumped back in, grabbed him and tried to keep his head above the surface whilst I was treading water. Unfortunately I never did finish my lifesaving certificate wearing PJ's in the school pool and found to my horror that I kept going under too, gulping huge mouthfuls of brown water. Catching sight of our friend Bongo I screamed at him to help me and luckily he quickly swam over and helped me drag Liam out. If is sounds dramatic, it was. Panting on the riverbank, we were all a little shaken, shocked at what had happened and how easily it could have turned to tragedy.
6 foot 4 Bongo had saved the day (with a little help from me, of course), and we were suddenly on some kind of adrenaline high at the realisation of the severity of what had just transpired. (We'd later find out that there are several drownings at this spot every year).
Relieved and charged up from our near-death experience, we all headed to the next bar to buy Bongo a celebratory beer, chinking bottles at our good fortune.....

Vientiane, Laos

I am ashamed to admit that before this trip I'd barely heard of Laos, even pronouncing it "Louse" when discussing our route with the travel agent. Yet I am now absolutely enthralled by the place and definitely plan to return in the future.
Laos (it's a silent "s" just in case you're as clueless as I was) is the most heavily bombed nation in the world (per capita). At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973 - during this time the USA dropped a planeload of bombs onto Laos every 10 minutes...for 9 long years. Around 30 per cent of this did not detonate, meaning there are still many deaths each year, along with the fact that the people are kept in poverty as they cannot use the land for fear of detonating such bombs.
Despite all of this, Laos is still one of the most beautiful countries in South East Asia, and one of my favourite countries of the trip, with breathtaking scenery and kind, friendly people.
I don't think we'd realised just how frenzied and grasping Vietnam had been until we arrived in Vientiane late evening, stepped off the bus, and were struck by the peace and tranquility of the city, the country's capital. Although Vientiane (meaning Sandalwood City) is the bustling capital of Laos, it still has only 450,000 inhabitants and is probably the most laid-back capital in Asia, more like a large village really.
We felt instantly more relaxed and at ease than we had done for the previous 15 days in Vietnam - whereas in Vietnam the locals think of a price, double it, multipy it by 6 then add 72, here in Laos business is a done in a more civilised, reasonable fashion. Don't get me wrong, you still have to haggle for everything from a banana to a tuk-tuk , but you don't feel completely violated after every teeny transaction.
It seems the rest of the travelling population were impressed by what Vientiane had to offer too, as we had to drive around to at least 6 guesthouses before we could find a room. Now I know how Mary and Joseph must have felt..all they wanted was a basic inn, and so did we but to no avail.Eventually we found a place for 18 dollars a night - not that cheap compared to elsewhere but we were so exhausted we'd have slept in a barn too at that point.After dinner and a few restorative cocktails with Dieter from our bus we perked up somewhat and slept like babies...

The next day we awoke and were almost shocked to discover that the room we'd finally accepted was tiny and had no windows - we'd been so shattered we'd barely noticed. Therefore, we dressed in shorts and a vest top (me, not Liam),not having seen outside, only to find that it was actually pretty chilly.
The weather improved as the day went on and we decided to treat ourselves to a luxury 2 hour massage (only 15 dollars each). I chose a herbal hot compress massage and Liam opted for the aromatherapy jobbie. When our tiny Laotian massage therapists led us into separate rooms and indicated for Liam only to take a shower I was beginning to smell a rat (or perhaps that was just her previous client)..."make sure there are no "happy endings" involved," I warned as I was led to my own bed and the door closed.
It turned out that Liam chose the best massage - gorgeously scented aromatherapy oils (and no funny business, I'm assured) , whilst mine involved red-hot muslin packs filled with herbs placed on various parts of my body. I attempted to endure the pain of these steaming sacks on my sensitive bod, gritting my teeth and telling myself it must be good for me as it seared into my sunburnt skin. When I was still covered in huge red burns the next day I wasn't so sure of the benefits...

The rest of our time in Vientiane was spent having lovely meals in quaint fairy-lit restaurants, meandering around musty antique shops and cute handicraft boutiques. I couldn't resist splashing out on an antique wooden carving of a rustic Buddha, even though I knew subconciously that what looks amazing in exotic Laos won't neccessarily look quite so well-placed in a 3 bed terrace in Romford..
We also walked along the Mekong river and took a tuk-tuk to a huge golden stupa (temple), marvelling at the great expense and meticulous detail lavished on these extravagant Buddhist places of worship found throughout South East Asia, so incongruous with the modest bamboo huts nearby.
Our next destination is Vang Vieng, home to a fun pastime known as TUBING....

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The worst bus journey of the entire trip..Hanoi to Vientiane

I know, I know, I keep ranting on about painfully slow, sweaty bus journeys but this one takes the cake.
We bought our bus tickets from a respectable-looking outfit in Hanoi, although with hindsight it was inevitable that that pesky Vietnamese trait of ripping travellers off would come into play. We were told to meet at the tour office at 5pm, which we did. Then a guy on a motorbike pulls up and indicates that Liam and his 23 kilos of rucksack should climb on the back. We protested in vain to the driver grabbing Liam's luggage and balancing it between his legs precariously as he wobbled off into the rush-hour traffic, before returning to do the same with me, almost ripping my legs off as he zipped between cars with my legs bent at right angles like a frogs'.
He took us back to where we'd just taken a taxi to only a few minutes earlier, saying that the bus would pick us up from here now. Other travellers gathered. We were then told we should all walk to a different meeting point. We did. We waited and waited, before being bundled (all 8 of us!!) into a taxi and told he'd take us to the bus station. 2 hours had passed and we still hadn't even boarded the bus, although we had bonded with our fellow travellers. (We didn't have much choice, seeing as our sweat was being exchanged with the person next to us in the taxi, and we were clinging onto to random people's boots and carrier bags of dirty laundry.)
By 7pm we were finally being ushered onto a rundown old bus that had seen better days. Hell, this thing had seen better centuries.
The trouble began when we weren't allowed to sit in our allocated seats by the Vietnamese "conductor", we'll call her. (Although Liam also called several other names too during the course of the journey.)
She told us in harsh pigeon English that foreigners must sit at the back. We were by now quite friendly with Dieter, a South African traveller, and a French couple whose names escape me, so we all protested loudly. Noone wants the back seats as they are the bumpiest, hottest seats on the bus (the engine is at the back), and also the seats don't recline. We were completely ignored. We were all seething with the unfairness of the situation - the journey was 28hours long, we'd paid upto 10 times more than the locals for our tickets, plus we'd been shunted from pillar to post for the last 2 hours and were still the first to arrive on the bus, yet we were told we couldn't sit in the prebooked seats. This is what we'd come to expect from the north Vietnamese, but it didn't make it any easier to swallow.
The bus filled up. And up. And up, until there were 55 people on a hot and sweaty 42- seater. There werer people on the floor in the aisle, people 3 to a seat, I reckon I might have even spotted a few climbing into the overhead parcel shelf. A couple of motorbikes were also heaved aboard. The bus was groaning under the weight and effort, travelling at a snail's pace. The driver and most of the passengers spat out of the window constantly and chugged on cigarettes and ominous-smelling pipes (opium?), sending stinking, acrid blus smoke down the back of the bus, and in our faces.
We stopped continously to pick up yet more passengers and luggage, we even stopped at the evil conductor woman's relatives house, where she disappeared inside them sat out on the veranda drinking from a bowl with them and chatting whilst 50-odd faces watched from the bus impatiently. We stopped at a ramshackle restaurant for dinner, where yet again us Westerners got ignored and went hungry. Liam seethed. We all did.
Hungry, we clambered back on board, getting thrown around until 2am, when we stopped to pick up a few more locals, these ones paralytic. Just when we thought the journey couldn't get much more unpleasant, there came a whooshing sound - one of the pisshead locals had just projectile vomited next to us, sending a gush of noodle-filled spew all over the French girl in front of me. It was so hot on the bus and the stench was unbearable. The poor French girl had to stick her head out of the window like a dog and gulp air frantically to avoid blowing chunks herself. After being sick, the guy seemed to feel much better and sparked up a fag. We were grateful we hadn't had dinner after all...
We finally arrived a the Laos border at 6am, where we had to wait 2 hours for the officials to open the border and organise our visas. When the offices did finally open it was like a feeding frenzy of piranhas as everyone attempted to get to the front first. These people don't understand the concept of queuing, so us travellers did the same, pushing them right back. We had the added advantage of being 3 foot taller so managed to beat them at their own game...
Back on the bus, more bumping, sweating, gritting teeth, then...disaster! (Another one). The bus broke down. We'd been aware of ominous metal-on-metal grinding noises, and had had to get out and push a few times due to the starter motor failing, but this felt much more serious. We'd already heard a few horror stories from other travellers about brakes failing on mountains and drivers having to crash the bus into the side of the cliff to stop it. Or occasions when drivers had had to maintain a certain velocity.I had visions of Keanu Reeves in Speed, yet the Vietnamese didn't bat and eyelid as the driver stopped the bus, grabbed a few spanners and made his way to the back of the bus, flipped open the hatch where we were sitting and began tinkering away.
Liam attempted to flex his mechanical skills but the communication barrier proved too much. If only Vietnamese had been part of the syllabus on Liam's mechanics college course.
After 3 hours at the side of the road in blistering heat in the middle of nowhere, me, Liam, and our fellow Westerners (5 of us), began hatching a cunning plan to ditch the Vietnamese and their shack of a bus and get the hell out of dodge. As Liam was a valuable asset to them, we knew they'd be reluctant to let us do the off, but it was every man for himself, and besides, they'd treated us like doggy doo for the last 20-odd hours.
We surreptitiously unloaded our bags from the bus round the opposite side to where the passengers were sitting on the grassy verge, and catching sight of another bus approaching in the distance, steeled ourselves to persuade it to stop. The first bus sailed past (apparently almost every bus breaks down in Laos so it was hardly likely to offer help), but then another approached a while later and the sick-covered, desperate, French girl ran out into the road and the driver took pity and screeched to a halt. We begged them to let us climb aboard, agreed an overpriced fee, and laughed as we left the open-mouthed Vietnamese to eat our dust as we sped off into the sunset.
We had to sit in the aisle on tiny plastic stools for the rest of the way (6 hours?), but we didn't care cos we were so grateful to finally be on our way.
We eventually arrived in Vientiane, filthy, starving and tired almost 30 hours after we'd left Vietnam.
Luckily for us, our first impressions of Laos were excellent - relaxed, beautiful, with smiling, welcoming locals. The journey then seemed almost surreal as we reflected with our new mate Dieter, (the guy from Cape Town) as we relaxed over a well-earned dinner (our first meal in 36hrs) and several illuminous cocktails....

Saturday, 7 February 2009

How Hanoi-ing

We left our dank, pube-filled hostel with strict orders that they change the sheets before we returned. They nodded solemnly, but as Liam went up to the room to collect something he'd forgotten he caught them just brushing off the same sheets. "No! Change them!", he ordered.
Hanoi is similar to Saigon in terms of traffic flow - motorbikes dodging and weaving, women wearing conical hats and carrying baskets attached to wooden poles, moto drivers trying to grab you onto the back of their bike every few yards.The sound of a thousand horns fills the air as everyone beep beeps constantly. It's like a scene from wacky races - motorbikes carrying all sorts of bizare cargo..a wardrobe here, family of six there. (If only I was as glamorous as Penelope Pitstop as I clung for dear life to my drivers lovehandles). The shops are perhaps a bit more sophisticated than those elsewhere in the country, I noticed, as we whizzed past in our grossly overpriced cyclo(pushbike with a carriage on the front), making a mental note of the location of a few I wanted to check out later.
After a lunch of that famous Vietnamese dish, pizza, we felt energised enough to take in some sights. We were staying in the Old Quarter near to the Hoan Kiem lake, so decided to check out the Ngon Soc temple in the middle of the lake, which is home to a giant embalmed turtle, found in the lake and symbolic of a 15th century legend in which a giant turtle came out of the lake and grabbed Emperor Ly Thai To's sword that he'd used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. Sounds like a romantic little tale but the reality was that it was a huge ugly-looking thing, all beady eyes and wrinkled skin. People were queuing up to pose alongside it...I shudder to think what those snaps will look like on the mantelpiece.
Getting into the concept of gawking at long-dead, embalmed things, we decided to drop in at Ho Chi Minh's place - a glass-topped mausoleum where you can see the embalmed corpse of the famous president.
It's open to the public most of the time, except for a 3-month period each year when he goes on vacation to Russia for a little "maintenance", or a "tidy up", as Liam called it. We clearly underestimated the number of people with the same morbid fascination with pickled presidents as us, rounding the corner to a huge snake of noisy tourists. The guards barked at everyone for silence, even snarling at Liam to remove his hands from his pockets. We weren't even anywhere near entering the masoleum complex yet. Communist propaganda posters were everywhere and I found the kermit-coloured uniforms of the imposing guards quite intimidating. (Well, the guards were as scary as they could be while dressed up in muppet colours. Miss Piggy would've been in her element with this lot.)
The crowd maintained a faux-serious expression as instructed by the guards as we were allowed to silently pass by the sarcophagus in single file, each trying not to stare TOO intently as they looked at the dead guy. As if they see dead presidents all the time. I must say, the soviets had done a good job of preserving the revered leader - he looked younger than the 79 years old that he'd been when he died, his beard was groomed, he was wearing military uniform and looked as though he were just taking a quick nap, albeit a stiff one.I've seen celebrities who look less alive, and all they've had done is a little botox - this guy's been dead for over 30 years.Although we did find it surprising that he'd been enbalmed in the first place, since it'd been his express wish to be cremated on death, and he was so well respected in North Vietnam that you'd have thought they have respected Uncle Ho's (as they affectionately called him) wishes.
We discussed this over lunch - staring at corpses hadn't dampened our appetites, (more's the pity in my case) before heading to the Hoa Lo Prison, as you do. We seem to have a thing about visiting prisons on this trip, having already tramped around at least 3 others...
This prison was nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by US POW's during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's called throughtout SE Asia), although it was originally built by the French to imprison Vietnamese who resisted their occupation. Famous prisoners during the war include Senator John McCain, who cannot raise his arms above his head following his torture and he tried to commit suicide twice whilst imprisoned here. (Having seen what America did to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during this war, it was pretty hard for us to feel sorry for the Americans though).
The other main thing we did in Hanoi was to visit the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, which was bright and colourful and entertaining despite the fact we couldn't understand a word of the story.
We had fun in Hanoi, but this was in spite of the treatment we received from the locals, rather than because of it. Most of them looked at us as though we were something they'd trodden in, or tried to pressure us into buying some substandard whatever with all the subtlety of a hungry rottweiler. And with just about the same amount of saliva coming out of their mouths too. These people can spit like it's an olympic sport. They were nowhere NEAR as friendly as their southern counterparts, which I might be able to explain away if I were better at politics and history. If we were queuing for something, for example, the locals would push us out of the way to get in front of us, and whoever was serving would ignore us. Sometimes, when going on bus journeys and the bus would have a 30minute stopver at a local restaurant, we'd be completely ignored, eventually our order would be taken, thewn our food wouldn't turn up and the driver would be honking away, indicating that we had to leave without eating. this happened 3 times in Vietnam, whilst the locals chomped away smugly. I stayed quiet, safe in the knowledge that I'd probably have got sick from the manky knuckles and kneecaps they were sucking on anyway.
By the time we were due to travel onto Laos we were more than ready for the 28hr bus ride...or were we.....

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Han...oi -look out! Another road accident....

The people of Vietnam are generally a friendly and kind lot, although we have noticed a slightly cooler reception as well as temperature as we've gone further north. Some areas have been downright frosty in fact. Take for example the chaotic arrangements for the journey from Hue to Hanoi. We'd been told to be at the bus stop at 5pm. Determined to get the good seats at the back with extra legroom, we arrived at 4.30pm. After a huge kerfuffle it emerged that we'd been told the wrong stop so we had to hurry to another collection point. I was near the front of the queue, yet the bus driver told us and a group of Aussies that as were were foreigners we must get to the back of the queue. "Vietnamese take priority over tourists," he said haughtily, spitting out the word "tourists". Seeing as we'd been waiting the longest and had paid 3 times the local rate for our tickets, we all though this unfair, and said so. He shouted abuse at us and ushered the locals on, refusing to allow us on the bus. Can you imagine what would happen if we did the same in London? There'd be uproar, and rightly so.
Eventually when all the Vietnamese were settled in their beds on the bus, he reluctantly allowed us to climb aboard. Luckily for us, the locals didn't want the extra legroom seats seeing as their legs swing on the seats anyway, barely touching the floor.
The bus stopped at a roadside eaterie after a few hours, and everone piled off to get some dinner. After waiting for a while for our noodles with vegetables it became apparent that the greedy old French couple sitting next to us had gobbled down the wrong meal...ours.I wouldn't mind, but they'd ordered beef and rice, and had tucked into our...noodles with veg. Hardly an honest mistake. The waiter didn't apologise and said we'd have to wait..again."A hungry man is an angry man, " seethed Liam as we climbed back on the bus hungry, having not received our meals in time for the bus leaving. In the whole time we've been travelling we've probably got EXACTLY what we ordered about...10 times. Usually, there's some discrepancy. Sometimes I reckon the chef takes a look at our order and thinks "I can't be arsed to cook that, I'll just give them this and hope they don't complain."
15 hours later we arrived in Hanoi. It was 6am, pitch black and pouring with rain. Wearing flip-flops and t-shirts, we slip-slided around on the muddy grass verge where the bus dropped us off and attempted to work out where we had to go using the lifesaving Lonely Planet guide. About 10 taxi drivers clambered for our business, shouting in our faces and trying to steer us towards their old bangers. Usually, we try to arrange the hostel to pick us up from the bus stop to avoid being ripped-off but the place we'd booked didn't offer this service.
Finally we agreed a reasonable price with the least dodgy-looking cabbie and slid into ther back seats, grateful to escape the rain. We'd only been in the car a few minutes when BANG!!! we'd hit a motorbike and it's 2 passengers. This was our second road accident in as many weeks, and the 5th one we'd witnessed since Cambodia. I sprung out of the vehicle to see what had happened...
The passenger was dazed and slumped on the floor alongside the car, but soon managed to get to his feet. But where was the driver?? I looked around and to my amazement she'd skidded all the way across the main road and was now lying under the bike on the pavement on the other side of the wide road. Luckily, as it was raining they were wearing lots of layers and there was little traffic at this time of the morning. A few hours later and it would've been a different story. They're a tough old lot, the Vietnamese, and once she'd got over the initial shock of flying through the air she leapt up and started shouting abuse at our driver. Liam signalled to me to get out, and popping open the boot we grabbed our rucksacks and made our way to the side of the road where a small crowd had gathered. Seeing as we're becoming experts in crash scene protocol, we knew the police wouldn't even bother talking to us so figured there was little point in hanging around. The crowd grew bigger as early morning exercise fanatics rubber-necked to see what all the commotion was about. We were more interested in the makeshift aerobics class taking place around the lake. Apparently it's part of Hanoi life that people gather early in the morning to do aerobics around the city to huge sound systems blaring out dance music. Individuals and small groups were solemnly working out with no teacher, all scattered around the city streets, yet they were all doing the same moves. Very weird. It was like something out of a Fatboy Slim video. Old grannies were doing push-ups against a bench and a little old man was rotating his hips. I wished I'd had my camera handy to video it, it was pure comedy gold.
Our laughter didn't last long. Starving from lack of dinner the previous night, tired from the journey, shaken up from the car accident, and struggling to find our hostel in the rain, we agreed that this was a definite low point. After walking around for alomst an hour, Liam finally located it in a tiny backstreet. We walked gingerly up ther front steps, covered in mud and dripping water all over the tiled floor.
The hostel had only cost 4 quid each per night, and upon entering our room we realised why. The room was damper than us, with paint peeling from the walls and a huge brown damp patch on the ceiling. The shower and sink leaked all over the floor. We had a shower, dried with threadbare towels ("we'll probably get impetigo from these") and I went to climb into the bed to warm up, just as Liam pointed out that the sheets were covered in pubes. For God's sake. I climbed wearily out again and we set off to explore Hanoi...

Hue's the daddy

Hue is the daddy of Vietnam's cultural and religious centres, and is the home to the royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty,plus an array of pagodas and a grand, crumbling Citadel. We arrived here after a mere 5hrs by bus,during which we sat directly behind the chain-smoking driver who stuck his head out of the window every 30 seconds to spit phlegm down the side of the bus. I buried my head in my book and tried to control my gag reflex.
We were staying in the run-down "Sports Hotel". This place couldn't have looked less sporty if it tried. When the rest of the class was running cross-country, this old place was hiding behind the bikesheds, having a fag. With peeling paint and filthy bathtub, it looked nothing like the picture on the flyer.
We wandered around town and visited the citadel.That night, we met up with the Northern lads Richard and Bongo who we'd bumped into at various intervals around South East Asia. We had arranged to go to the "Why Not?" Bar in the centre of town. ("Why not?" "Because it's empty, that's why not, " we quipped half-heartedly as we sat waiting for them, peeling the labels from our local beer).It was 10pm on a Saturday night and the place was like a ghost town.The boys were happy though, as there was a pool table and English football was blaring on the TV inside.
The next morning we hired a couple of moto's (motorbike taxis) and gave the drivers a few hundred thousand Dong to take us to all the major attractions.Liam did the deal on the price,subtly covering his nose to avoid inhaling the fish sauce breath coming from between the driver's rotting stumps that once called themselves teeth.It was quite exhilarating experience, clinging to the back of the bike as he took the bends at 45 degree angles and bouncing me high into the air as we hit rocks. I attempted to keep the little kid-sized crash helmet perched atop my big western head, whooping with delight as I was thrown off my seat. At least I couldn't smell his breath at this speed.
We visited various multi-tiered pagodas, the majestic old tomb of Emperor tu Duc, the tomb of Minh Mang and several temples, surrounded by the biggest Bonsai trees I'd ever seen. The temples were set next to a stunning lake with pine trees lining the banks. Hue was one of the most heavily-bombed sites during the Vietnam war, and our drivers took us to a viewpoint overlooking the river. They did explain the relevance of this detour but we couldn't understand a word they said. It was pretty anyway.They seemed to be speaking Vietnamese, with an English word thrown in every other sentence. We asked them questions but they stared at us blankly. Speaking louder didn't help. In the end we all took to nodding and smiling, neither party knowing what on earth was being said. I could have insulted their mothers and they'd have just beamed at me. We returned to our hotel in the afternoon, wind-swept and dusty from the bike-ride. There was just time for an Italian meal and a quick explore of the local shops before continuing up the coast to Hanoi for our final stopoff in Vietnam...

Hoi An and the ancient Cham ruins

The rest of our stay at Nha Trang was spent relaxing on the beach, ordering room service and reading. The sun was deceptively hot (it felt cooler due to a strong breeze) which resulted in us cooking ourselves for too long and consequently none-too-attractive crabstick effect: red raw on the front and white on the back. If anyone was in any doubt as to where we were from, it was confirmed when we turned around. Even the lobsters being prepared on the beach by the local women looked pale in comparison.
We comforted ourselves by retreating to our hotel, whacking up the aircon and reading our books. I was reading a book called "The Girl in the Picture, " about the famous picture of a young girl seen running from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam war, her skin covered in burns. I knew how she felt.I could imagine the same picture, only with me running away from the beach instead.
The fact that the room service was ridiculously cheap was quite a novelty - we ate and drank to our hearts' content, all for about 3 quid a time, sniggering when the bill came.
When the time came to pack our bags and catch the sleeper bus to Hoi An, we were apprehensive, not exactly relishing the idea of anouther 12hr journey cooped up in a child-size bed. But we were pleasantly surprised..for the first time ever, we had enough legroom. They should have slapped a UNESCO world heritage sticker on that bus and made it the eighth wonder of the world. A bus...with legroom. Pioneering.
The hotel in Hoi An was our little luxury...3 whole stars. It had an infinity pool, dark wood furnishings and Sky TV. Unfortunately the weather wasn't great though so we didn't get to test the pool out. And there was no bar. Oh well, you can't have it all I guess. Not for US$ 25 (inc bed and breakfast for both of us) a night anyway.
That afternoon we went into the Old Town, which we agreed is one of the most picturesque areas in the whole of Vietnam - an ancient trading port with lots of quaint little alleys and narrow lanes boasting unusual little restaurants and old colonial buildings. We visited an old 19th Century house, where the owner welcomed us in and cooked us some delicious local food, particular to that region. One dish was called Cao Lau, a broth of flat noodles, pork slices, bean sprouts and greens, topped with croutons. The other was called White Rose, which was a little dumping stuffed with shrimp. Not as nice as it sounds actually - it tasted like a blob of glue with a prawn inside. We did that English thing of muttering under our breath that it tastes awful, then politely telling the waiter that it was delicious and tipping generously. The food here is a bit hit-and-miss: it sounds great on the menu but some of the cuts of meat look like something the local stray dogs would turn their scabby little noses up at. (Once when I ordered chicken I thought they'd mistakenly given me beef.A second examination revealed that it was in fact chicken, albeit a brown and wrinkly one).
We wandered about the town, visiting shabby little museums and the Japanese Covered Bridge.
The next day we took a tour to the Cham ruins, an ancient set of temples built around 700AD. Having visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia we'd become temple snobs, and wrinkled our noses at the dilapidated unkempt sites with grass growing out of the top of them, dismissing the fact that they WERE 1300 years old. Added to the fact that the tour involved a little Vietnamese guide whose English left a lot to be desired was the simple truth that there were far too many people in the group, all followiong each other around like lemmings. There's no fun in being herded around from one pile of old rubble to another with about 50 Japanese tourists snapping everything in sight, blinding you with the flash from their humungous cameraman-worthy equipment, yapping away and walking into the background of the few pictures we actually managed to take.
We returned to the Old Town a few times for meals and to walk along the riverbank in the evening, which looked amazing when lit up by hundreds of tiny fairy lights and beautiful chinese lanterns. Aside from the lovely Old Town, the rest of Hoi An was a multitude of tailor's shops lining the streets on either side of the road, all characterised by little women with tape measures around their necks desperately trying to haul people inside. Once over the threshold, you are thrust into a kiddies plastic chair as several women appear from nowhere and start pummelling your shoulders and massaging your neck, whilst putting a copy of the Next Directory in front of you. As the massage is so relaxing, before you know it you are leafing through some old catalogue, picking out dresses and suits that you might like to buy. It's quite a good sales technique, I had to admit, as I was almost lured into buying all manner of garments, none of which I needed nor particularly wanted. I dragged myself from the trance they'd put me in just in time to see Liam being measured up for a wool suit jacket in a daze.We snapped ourselves out of it and made our excuses, leaving with our wallets intact,just.
Back at the hotel we checked our visas - only 5 more days left on our 15-day visa for Vietnam. We'd better get ourselves to our next destination, Hue, which is about halfway up the country. It's a race against time, attempting to travel from one end of Vietnam to the other in 2 weeks. Okay, start the clock...

Monday, 26 January 2009

Nha Trang and the Tet Festival

The "sleeper" bus proved to be anything but. Designed for oompah loompahs, the "bed" was approximately five foot long, which is ample if you're of South-East Asian descent but ridiculous for anyone Western and over the age of 12.
Our plan to catch this bus, get a good 10 hours sleep (the journey time), and then arrive in Nha Trang refreshed and calm, dissolved before our eyes as we climbed aboard and looked around. Now I know I keep whingeing about the bus journeys so I'll try to keep it short, but man, this one took the biscuit...
We located our beds..top bunks next to each other above a large Vietnamese family with 2 small children and grandad sleeping on a piece of foam in the gangway. Kicking off my flip-flops I climb over him and try to cram my size 8's in the rungs of the tiny ladder up to my bunk.I manage to fit only my big toes in and yank myself up using my arms. Then I attempt to lay down. Hmmm, can't seem to fit my legs inside the metal casing of the lower half of the bed, designed to stop you rolling out when Jenson Button (aka the Driver) takes a bend at 100K's per hour.
Bending my knees to one side, I try to lay down. Nope, not gonna work. I try again, this time bending my neck at right angles to my body. I fit in, just. I look over at Liam, who's doing the same. I look like Alice in Wonderland, after she's drunk the potion that makes her grow.It's funny for about 10 minutes, as we crack up and take phots of each other wedged in these little coffins. We're the only Westerners on the bus and the locals nearby laugh as they watch us trying to contort our bodies into the beds,casually stretching themselves out in theirs, elbows behind their heads.
As we stop laughing, reality sets in. We've got to spend the next 10 hours in this unnatural position. The roof of the bus is only a few inches from our heads, so sitting up isn't an option. After an hour, during which the 2 TV screens have played loud sitcoms and karaoke in Vietnamese, the neon strip lights above my head have been switched on and off at least 10 times, and the aircon has broken, it's not funny any more. Combine this with Lewis Hamilton senior at the wheel, honking away and bouncing us out of our beds every few seconds and it soon becomes painful. Liam and I put on the belts that strap you to this metal torture device (aka the "bed") and resign ourselves to a sleepless night...
Thankfully, our hotel's driver is waiting at the bus stop in the pitch darkness to pick us up at 6am, bless him, only it's not the taxi we'd arranged, but a motorbike taxi. He was a little over-optimistic, seriously planning on taking 2 6-footers, 2 large rucksacks, 2 daysacks and another shoulderbag to the hotel on one clapped-out bike. Finally giving in, he calls a mate over to help and we make the journey to the hotel, which, thank God, is lovely. For a two-star. We're shown to our rooms and collapse.
When we woke up we realised that we have a large balcony, seaviews and a lovely ensuite with... a bath. A luxury for a traveller.
Feeling better, we explored the city, taking in the huge sleeping Buddha statue, the Long Son pagoda and the Hindu temple, where the monks were sleeping.
We walked along the picturesque beach, watched the stage being set for that night's concert and had lunch at a restaurant before heading back to rest and change for the night's celebration for Tet and the Chinese New Year.
That evening we headed down to the beach along with a mere 40,000 others to watch the show. Brightly-coloured costumes filled the stage as the live music filled the air. Being the only ones on foot, we managed to get a good postion at the front. Almost everyone else had driven to the square on motorbikes and were staying on them, lined up neatly for miles around.Young men in red satin costumes played the drums and danced, neon dragons on metal sticks were paraded across the stage.The dancing and music continued, followed by parades beautiful young girls dressed in the traditional dress of "ao dai", a silk tunic slit to the waist with elegant wide-legged trousers. The atmosphere was happy, charged, but without the alcohol-fuelled menacing air that often happens in England at such large events.
We took a break to get some dinner, before returning to the beach to watch the rest of the show and catch the fireworks. By now, there were even more people, although we only saw a handful of westerners and were aware of locals gawping at us and whispering, but in a nice way. The people here are extremely polite and friendly towards us, as they have been all over South-East Asia, smiling and calling hello to us. Ok, so it's usually followed with requests that we buy something, but people have also stopped their bikes to offer help if they've seen us looking at a map or looking lost, for example. We've never felt in danger or had any "encounters" as we did in South America.
We watched the fireworks from the beach, which were being let off simultaneously on 2boats out at sea - it was an amazing display and must have cost a fortune.Despite the size of the crowd, it was peaceful to watch, with just the "oohs" and "aaahs" in stereo all around us to remind us that we were not alone.
It had been a fantastic and memorable night, and a stroke of luck that we just happened to be in Vietnam for Vietnamese and Chinese New Year...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was the motorbikes. Literally. Well, almost.Crossing the road after piling off the long-distance bus from Cambodia, we were almost run over by the spider's web of motorbikes that criss-crossed the main roads. Indeed, we were so overwhelmed that when a Vietnamese man with a taxi beckoned to us to get in we couldn't wait to escape the chaos all around us and jumped in. Having been travelling for almost five months now, I knew to agree a price beforehand, but he insisted that he had a meter so we clambered in. What he didn't say, however, was that his crafty little hands had been tampering with the aforementioned meter and within a few minutes it was reading 100,000 dong. Which is about 4 quid. Not as scary as it sounds in Dong I know , but a complete rip-off nonetheless. I started pulling him up on his dodgy money-making scheme, gesticulating wildly, and asked him to turn off the meter. Suddenly, he developed a classic case of selective hearing and went completely deaf. "Stop the car, we're getting out here, " I shrieked in his earhole, the meter now on 210,000 dong. As we'd only been in the car for 5 minutes, I reckon he had his meter set to "London black cab." I argued the price but he was having none of it, so I chucked a 200,000 dong note at him resentfully and we huffed out of the cab, dragging our rucksacks, daysacks, books and a handbag with us off into the humid evening. We weren't even at our chosen hotel. Upon finally finding accommodation that wasn't on the 4th floor of a block with no lifts, we checked in and collapsed. Out of interest, I asked the guy on reception how much a taxi should have cost: "about 20,000 dong max...". Oh well...
I went to the cashpoint to get some money out. All the options were in the millions. I randomly selected 3 million (about 120 quid) and feeling like millionaires, we set off to explore the city and have a few drinks.
No sooner had we left our hostel than we bumped into 2 lads from Leeds who we'd met a few days earlier in Cambodia, at the shooting range. They'd recognised me from the dreaded "Ibiza Uncovered," (my second recognition in 2 days due to Sky's current reruns) and we'd got talking. Calling us over to join them, we ordered some drinks. And some more."One for the road?". "Why not?". By 1am we'd ploughed our way through the cocktail menu and were staring in amazement at the strange scene playing out in the street in front of us:
Two bikes had crashed into each other. Both passengers were a bit dazed, then suddenly one of the motorcyclists jumped up off the floor and started punching the other guy who'd just picked himself up. He knocked him clean out. Then ensued a huge fight, with bikes swerving, people rubber-necking and near-misses taking place. It was a crazy sight.
Forget New York, Saigon is a city that never sleeps. Watching the action on the streets is like watching a movie on fast-forward..even more frantic than the hectic scenes we witnessed in Cambodia. There are so many bikes on the road that motorists start riding on the pavement too. Pedestrians scatter like skittles trying to avoid becoming another statistic. Honking your horn is not something you do occasionally if someone cuts you up - in Vietnam it's essential, like breathing. A policeman who's supposed to be directing traffic stands helplessy with his arms by his side, baton dangling, in the middle of the road whilst everyone completely ignores him.
The sound is deafening. I'm sure it's chaotic anyway, but combine that with the fact that it's currently Chinese New Year and Vietnamese New Year (called Tet) here and it's a recipe for a heart attack. Crossing the road you just have to close your eyes and hope for the best. Freeze in a panic (like I did) and you're more likely to get mown down. In the last week, we've witnessed 4 accidents (we were the victims in one of them.)
After drinking the bar dry, we all agreed to meet up the following morning to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a rabbit warren constructed by the Vietnamese in order to avoid the bombs dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Obviously, when the morning came around we were all nursing a mild hangover and weren't really relishing the prospect of crawling around on hands and knees in hot, dirty underground tunnels. We met up with Richard and Danny, resolving to do the tour the following day instead. Liam and I then went off in search of food and found a great place with a cinema upstairs and decided that a cool drink and a darkened room was just the place to recover from the previous night's frivolities. The fact that there was a film on too was just a bonus. We emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight, a few hours later having watched Slumdog Millionaire feeling much better and continued our sight-seeing.
The next morning we set off bright and early for our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Having hit it hard on the cheap booze again, The Northerners were nowhere to be seen. Lightweights.
Luckily, I had the tickets so Liam and I joined the tour on our own and set off for the Cu Chi tunnels, stopping on the way to visit an art factory, where people who had been disabled by the chemicals dropped on Vietnam by America during the war. The chemical, called Agent Orange, was a herbicide meant to defoliate the countryside and wipe out al the food and vegetation. It also had the effect of disabling thousands of people and causing birth defects in their children.We watched them work painstakingly with tweezers, applying tiny fragments of broken eggshell to decorative artworks, then laquering them, with impressive results.
A few hours later we arrived at the tunnels. Our guide was an eccentric Vietnamese veteran of war - a skinny little old man with a huge personality, which made the tour all the more interesting. He showed us various booby traps that the Vietnamese set for the Americans, such as a grass-covered trap door that gives way to reveal deadly pointed shards of bamboo. He showed us huge craters left by B-52's, old bombshells, tanks and other remnants of war. Then came the piece de la resistance..the tunnels themselves.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a complex network of tunnels that run over 3 levels underground - around 4, 8 and 12 metres deep. As they get deeper, so the tunnels get smaller, so that even the Vietnamese, who are tiny, had trouble squeezing through. These tunnels became home to thousands of Vietnamese during the war - people lived underground, eating, sleeping and working here. People were married underground, there were honeymoon suites, a maternity hospital, kitchens and armouries. The tunnels continue for over 250 Kilometres, stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border.
Much to the frustation of the Americans, the tunnels were undetectable from the surface and the American soldiers used sniffer dogs to try and find the entrances to these warrens, located deep in the forest. The main entrance was in fact underwater, so the Vetnamese would swim to the surface at night to wash in the river and clean their clothes. Since the Americans didn't fight at night, they did so in safety.
The Viet Cong soldiers even tunnelled their way directly into the Americans' barracks, stealing their weapons in the dead of night. Our guide explained that as the Vietnamese army couldn't afford such expensive guns that as well as stealing them from the Americans, they also drew on other natural ways to defeat their enemy, such as positioning beehives, boobytraps and scorpions where they knew they would cause maximum damage.
Soon it was time for us to go down into the tunnels. I wasn't feeling too keen on this seeing as it was about 30 degrees, humid and dark in there, but knew it was essential in order to really understand how they worked. We had to crawl on our hands and knees - me in a nice silk dress, the rest of the group in shorts and t-shirts.
After only a few minutes we felt claustrophobic and hot as the tunnels were so narrow. And these were the tunnels that had actually been widened for tourists. Fortunately, there were evenly-spaced "emergency exits" that led up to ground level, which I took advantage of after about 60 metres.
Following the tour we went back to Saigon city and spent the next day or so sampling the local food (though not the cockroaches, as one of the Northern boys did), drinks and generally getting into the spirit of the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and Chinese New Year celebrations.
We agreed it would be great to celebrate Tet at the beach concert in Nha Trang rather than the smoggy city so booked ourselves onto the sleeper bus out of the city on Saturday, ready for the festival on Sunday night...

Friday, 23 January 2009

Wildlife Sanctuary and Wat Phnom

After the horrors of the previous day we decided to lighten things up a little with a visit to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Santuary - a shelter for rescued animals. After several near misses in out tuk-tuk on the way there we were a little disappointed with our first sight of the sanctuary - it appeared deserted, depressing and underfunded,almost completely run by kids.
Some kids sprang from nowhere, offering to be our guides, and led us the entrance, where a pregnant deer with a broken leg was grazing. Tugging at the heartstrings, the kids offered to sell us some bananas and coconuts as food for the animals. I thought this was supposed to be our fun day, with none of the sadness of the previous one? I didn't think I could take another tear-jerking day of grief.
It is bad enough seeing all the human victims of landmines, without meeting all the animal ones too. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with an estimated 6 million unexploded landmines still littering the landscape.
"Never EVER stray from the path" , warned the Lonely Planet. I hadn't even thought of mines as I'd gone into the bushes to answer the call of nature the previous day.
The sanctuary turned out to be better than expected, even if the streetkids DID relieve us of precious dollars every time we came to another orphaned or maimed animal. I didn't realise that bears ate coconuts,and stared wide-eyed as the children tossed in our overpriced purchases. The baby bears tore them open and drank the juice before devouring white flesh. (the coconut's not mine, fortunately)
And so the tour continued..my favourite animals were the gibbons, swinging like gymnasts with ridiculously long arms from their many poles.
When we came to the footless baby elephant, I began to smell a rat. Once again,we were asked for cash, this time for a new foot for Chouk. Bereft and now skint too, we politely declined. When I asked what had happened to her foot,the keeper said she had got stuck in a snare. Her foot is probably an ashtray now, or maybe an umbrella stand.
After fleecing us of any "spare" cash (as if any traveller has spare money knocking about) we sat down to lunch with our driver. Seeing as tourists pay around 3 times what a local would pay for food, we decided to let Sambath order. Big mistake.
The "food" arrived. Thinking it was beef in black bean sauce, I began serving it onto my plate. Then, on closer inspection, I realised it was actually the bony knuckles and kneecaps of chicken. Oblivious to my disgust,Sambath began tossing these knuckles into his mouth, crunching bones and cartilage before spitting the remains back out.Gross.When I saw a whole chickens foot, complete with claws, on the plate I had to subtley put my lunch down and turn away, pretending I was full after only a few mouthfuls of rice.
The sadness of Phnom Penh, combined with the dodgy meals and an abundance of lone middle-aged Western men with questionable motives for visiting the city, meant that we were eager to leave for Sihanoukville...
Unfortunately the Vietnamese Immigration Department would only issue us with a 15-day visa for Vietnam, bought for us through our hotel reception for 30 dollars each. This meant that we had to leave immediately for Saigon, since the clock was ticking on our visa, yet we hadn't even visited Sihanoukville yet. Any dreams of beach life were banished as we packed our bags and hurridly left for Saigon in Vietnam, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Another bustling city. Oh well,we'd just have to squeeze some beach action in later....

S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields

As our bus pulled into Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers clambered over each other, forming a scrum as they competed for our business. It was like being a movie star on the red carpet, with paparazzi shouting your name and trying to get your attention..only less glamorous.
"You want tuk-tuk?" shout the men. "Mine has air-con," jokes another, pointing to his vehicle. As all tuk-tuk's are just basic open-air carriages attached to a motorbike they all inadvertently benefit from a cooling system I guess.
Searching out the least dodgy-looking tuk-tuk driver, we select one with a round, warm face and climb in. The reason we chose so carefully was because once you've taken a tuk-tuk, it's hard to shake off the driver, who will cling to you long after the journey is complete, a bit like a bull mastif with a stick. You literally have to prise their salivating jaws from you in order to disembark, so eager are they to be your driver for the duration of your stay. Having been driven around several unsavoury guesthouses (even though they were in the Lonely Planet), he finally suggested a budget hotel that he knew. Having inspected the umpteenth room and agreed a price with the manager, I went back to the tuk-tuk to retrieve our bags and Liam, who was animatedly doing a deal with Mr Tuk-tuk for 3 days' chauffeuring around Phnom Penh and the surrounding countryside.
Agreeing to pick us up at 9am the next morning, Sambath drove off into the sunset, happy now he could feed his family for another few days.
The next morning we went downstairs to find a cheap place for breakfast to find Sambath waiting patiently for us outside, 30 minutes before the agreed pick-up time. As these drivers tend to congregate around hotel entrances, he had been worried that we may go off with another driver. I wondered if he'd been there all night...
We knew that Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor had shown the awe-inspiring beauty of Cambodia, but also that the country had a sad and tragic history, which we would be presented with in Phnom Penh...
After stopping at the riverside for breakfast, the first place we had arranged to visit was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the S21 Prison. Now this may sound a somewhat morbid choice of venues but we were assured that to really understand Cambodia and it's people we must first learn about it's bloody past.
During the late 1960's Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War. The US began secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia and shortly after the 1970 coup, American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country to root out Vietnamese communist forces. The country plunged into Civil War, ending only after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The Khmer Rouge, led by the evil Pol Pot,then implemented one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen. Within hours of taking over they had begun to systematically round people up, particularly those who were educated or wore spectacles. Once Tuol Svay Prey high school, Pol Pot turned this instead into the infamous S-21 prison, where over 20,000 were taken, tortured and dumped in mass graves between 1975-79. Only 7 people survived.
Walking through the silent corridoors it was possible to imagine it as a school, that is until we stepped into one of the rooms. Instead of desks and chairs, there was a single rusty metal bed, leg irons and a small metal bucket. On the wall was black-and-white photograph of the same room and furniture, only in the picture there is a horrifically dismemebered body on the bed, pools of blood underneath. When the prison was finally discovered after the fall of the Khmer rouge in 1979 (soldiers were led there by the smell of decomposing bodies), this was the exact scene that greeted them. Our tour guide took us through many rooms like this, each with a few items of torture or a bed and a picture on the wall depicting what was found in each room. To prove that the items in the room were authentic, she pointed out a dent in one of the beds which was the same in the photo. It was extremely distressing to pass through these rooms and see what had happened 30 years ago on the exact spot that we were standing.
These poor victims had been plucked freom their homes, for no better reason than the fact that they were educated and that Pol Pot wanted to "start again" as Year Zero, with "fresh" citizens, the abolishment of money and a peasant-dominated cooperative.
At this very high school now called S-21, thousands of people were tortured, with an average of 100 innocent people dying every day. Those who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. Those who survived were driven in the dead of night to Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves.
We were shown various torture devices used for pulling out people's fingernails, dunking people underwater, stretching limbs, electrocution, boxes for containing scorpions used to sting victims into false confessions...
Victims were also stabbed, hit, the list of horrific acts goes on.You get the picture. Classrooms were converted into tiny cells, or left as they were but with 20 people shackled together with leg irons. We were shown a blackboard, once innocently used by teachers, now used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to write a list of rules for prisoners. For some reason that was one of the things that disturbed me the most - seeing the rules written in chalk in curly, girly writing, orders such as "do not speak, remain totally silent, do no move unless ordered to do so..." The writing looked childlike, and in the next room we found out why...
On the walls were pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge of hundreds of their victims before they were killed, numbers tagged to their clothes for identification. The terror these poor people were feeling showed in the mugshots, many of them children or teenagers, some were even holding their babies, who were also executed in cold blood. Then the guide pointed out the soldiers who had carried out the killings...children themselves, many of them under 18 years old. It soon became apparent that many of those perpetrating such atrocities were also victims themselves - children who had been forced to join the regime as soldiers, or who had joined voluntarily, not knowing what disgusting tasks would be required of them.
As the sunlight reflected the bars on the windows onto the glass frames containing these tragic portraits, it gave an eerie, ghostly quality that made me want to escape the confines of this haunting place.
Out in the sunshine, I was glad to leave this disturbing memorial, amazed that such horrendous acts could have taken place so recently, during my lifetime. It was shocking to think that all this was going on here, whilst I was being bounced on someone's knee and gurgling innocently on the other side of the world. I said as much to Liam, who gently reminded me that such atrocities are STILL going on today, only this time in Zimbabwe..
Our history lesson not over yet, our driver continued on to Choeung Ek, the "killing fields", where excavations in 1980 uncovered around 17,000 bodies of those held at the nearby S-21.
There is a huge white memorial called a "stupa", which has glass windows and contains the skulls of 9000 victims. A truly unforgettable sight. Other bones are encased underneath, and there are piles and piles of the victims' clothes.
The fields themselves are dotted with 129 huge grassy craters, mass graves which have now been excavated. Hundreds of people were found in each one, many headless,or grouped by sex or age. The victims were made to crouch, were shot or beaten about the head,then rolled directly into the mass graves.
We walked silently amongst the huge ditches, both noticing something at the exact same time...the areas where the bodies had been were now host to hundreds of beautiful butterflies, all fluttering in and around the grave sites. Thinking this must just be a lush area where there are naturally lots of butterflies we looked around us. The other side of the fields and the surrounding areas where there were no graves had hardly any butterflies. They definitely appeared to be clustered only in the direct area of the graves. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence, but it was both a beautiful and haunting sight nontheless...
The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown in 1979, but not before they had tortured and killed around 3 million Cambodian people, one fifth of the entire population.
In the newspapers here there are details of the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders, due to start next month, 30 years after the killings took place. Unfortunately, several key defendants have already died, including the evil Pol Pot, who escaped justice when he died in 1998.
And so ends my history lesson.
Before heading back to the hostel for a stiff drink (medicinal of course to help with the shock of what we'd seen), our driver suggested we visit the shooting range. I was conspicuous as the only female for miles around, as testosterone-fuelled guys fired live rounds at the targets. Liam opted to fire an AK-47, so I hovered nearby as the official photographer. I'd hardly had time to switch the camera on before Liam was firing away, trigger-happy as he discharged the entire 30 bullets he'd paid 40 dollars for in about 20 seconds. That was 2 night's accommodation.The staff at the range thrust the menu back to Liam, offering him a choice of M-16's, rocket launchers and other such monsters available for a hefty fee. "For an extra charge you can shoot a chicken or even a cow, " we were told gleefully. "No, I'm not in the mood to kill anything, funnily enough..."
It had been a stressful, sad day, but left me admiring the Cambodians even more - these strong people who have suffered so much yet are still one of the friendliest, most good-humoured nationalities we'd met on this whole trip.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Journey to Phnom Penh...TARANTULAS!!!

We were jolted awake by our alarm ringing in the darkness for the fifth day in a row..this sight-seeing business can be pretty demanding...and dressed whilst half-asleep for the early bus to Phnom Penh. Amazingly, the minibus to take us to the bus station turned up on time. Then, even more amazingly, the main bus left on time too. Will wonders never cease?!
We settled down for the 5hr journey and attempted to get comfortable, despite the fact that the Cambodian people are tiny and our limbs had to be bent into unnatural shapes to fit in the seats. The little Khmer lady in front of Liam slammed her seat back as far as it would go, meaning that Liam had to have his legs either side of the seat and the old woman's head practically in his lap. I tried to surpress my laughter.
After 5 hours or so I thought we'd scored a hat trick of miracles when the bus pulled into a bus station. Surely we couldn't have arrived at our destination on time? "Of course not," laughed the driver when I asked him. "We have a short break." Hmm, I guessed as much.
We got off the bus to stretch our legs and were immediately accosted by groups of kids touting their wares - soggy , warm pineapple is not that appealing but I felt sorry for them so bought a couple of sweaty plastic bags of it anyway. Groggy from the journey, I hadn't actually noticed until this point that the kids were covered in....TARANTULAS!!!!
I screamed as they yanked them off their t-shirts and began thrusting them towards me, saying "you like spider madam?". "No," I screeched as I took off across the marketplace. "No bite, friendly spider, " they called after me.
Once I had managed to reduce my heartrate to a normal level, I walked gingerly back to where Liam was happily allowing the girls to attach the huge furry tarantulas to his t-shirt. I'd held the python the day before, but I definitely drew the line at these badboys.
I looked over at the market, wondering what those crispy black things were on the silver platters that all the women were selling. More tarantulas, no less! So the women cook the tarantulas to sell as crisy snacks, whilst a few escape the cooking pot and become pets for their children. I was horrified, although I preferred the company of the deep-fried variety, glad that the cretins had got what they had coming to them.
The huge cooked spiders were accompanied by deep-fried locusts and crickets. I stared at them bug-eyed, wondering who on earth eats these things. Everyone in Cambodia, it seems. The other local delicacy here are duck embryos, which are incubated under hot lights then removed from the shell and eaten whole. I thought I'd seen it all when I saw people chowing down on roasted guinea pigs in Peru but this really takes the biscuit.
After 20 minutes of near heart-attacks as the children dropped their "pets" near my feet and chucked them about near me I could take no more and scrambled back on the bus, where thankfully the driver was now ready to continue the journey., refuelled on crispy duck embryos and a side order of tarantula no doubt.
The bus driver then proceeded to honk his horn annoyingly all the way to Phnom Penh, arriving only 2 hours later than promised....