A Travellerspoint blog

Last leg of my Southeast Asian adventure

Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

32 °C

My last few days in Southeast Asia were spent in the modern metropolis' of Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore. A couple of days in KL was a nice change from the other cities I've visited, it is much smaller and compact, much quieter and orderly, and combines a good mix of the old, the new and the natural. The new comes in the form of the incredible number of skyscrapers and shopping malls, the epitome of this being the Petronas Towers, formerly the highest buildings in the world, and its attached shopping centre boasting every western shop you could imagine from Prada and Harrods to M&S and Topshop. Despite the impressive height of the towers, this area doesn't really feel like the Asia I've come to love so I didn't spend too much time here. Much more to my liking where the bustling China Town and Little India, plus the old colonial sites.
Multi coloured shophouses in Chinatown, KL

Multi coloured shophouses in Chinatown, KL

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

View from KL Tower

View from KL Tower


Another impressive thing about KL is the amount of green space and even areas of virgin rainforest within the city centre. Surely this is the only capital city in the world where you would find monkeys living wild within a stones throw of some of the tallest buildings in the world.
Monkey in KL

Monkey in KL

ASEAN Sculpture park and KL skyline beyond

ASEAN Sculpture park and KL skyline beyond

KL Tower from below - flanked by tropical trees

KL Tower from below - flanked by tropical trees


Despite these great things, the highlight for me once again was the food - the same kind of Chinese/Indian influenced fare as everywhere else in Malaysia, and just as tasty and cheap as everywhere else.
Petaling Street, Chinatown, KL

Petaling Street, Chinatown, KL

Roti Honey and Banana

Roti Honey and Banana

Roti Nan curry

Roti Nan curry

So after KL I had my last bus journey in Asia (and the best - featuring big leather seats and airplane style movies, and it actually arrived on time!), to the tiny city/nation of Singapore which was my sixth and final country in Asia. Much like KL, Singapore is a nice mix of the super modern and fantastically restored colonial past.
The old and new - Colonial era Cricket Club with football and rugby pitch, surrounded by the modern city skyscrappers

The old and new - Colonial era Cricket Club with football and rugby pitch, surrounded by the modern city skyscrappers


It was just a flying visit of 24 hours before my flight. For me this was enough, not through any fault of Singapore's but after 3 months of South East Asia I was just templed and China towned out. The modern business areas are impressive from a distance but up close you could be in any modern city in the world with homogenised steel and glass office buildings interspersed with Starbucks. On top of that the prices in Singapore suddenly took a meteoric rise upwards. So I spent most of my time doing the one thing which was still cheap and great - eating at hawker food stalls. However there was one small and strange incident as I tucked into a plate of spicy fried black pepper beef and rice in the communal and sociable seating area. A local started asking me a few questions, nothing strange there (one of the delights of my trip has been the friendly locals). But before I knew it he had bought us 2 beers and wouldn't accept my protestations that I didn't want it, so to be polite I thought what harm can it do? Oh I should have learnt by now, the conversation quickly turned to his sister studying in England and her lack of money (of course). I quickly ate and drank up but before I could get away another 2 beers arrived. At that point I politely but firmly said no, goodbye and walked away whilst checking over my shoulder. Anyway it obviously turned out fine as I'm still alive, and I got a free beer out of it and an interesting tale.
Hawker stalls at a food court in Singapore

Hawker stalls at a food court in Singapore

Great Paint job in Little India, Singapore

Great Paint job in Little India, Singapore

Crazy Singapore buildings

Crazy Singapore buildings


Obviously while in Singapore I had to take a visit to Raffles, the world famous hotel. I got some nice photo's to show that I was there, but that's all I got, with the famous Singapore Slings starting at $24, I decided to give it a miss and treat myself to several great hawker meals instead at the much less snooty food court markets.
Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel

Singapore Sling menu at Raffles Hotel

Singapore Sling menu at Raffles Hotel

Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

Last meal in Southeast Asia - a fantastic Bryani

Last meal in Southeast Asia - a fantastic Bryani


So with a full belly I headed to the airport to end my incredible travels around Asia, and to begin a brand new adventure down under in Australia.

I can't actually believe that 3 months have passed by already, it doesn't seem like 2 minutes ago that I was back in rainy England planning everything. But then looking back at all the amazing things I've had the privilege of doing I can't quite believe how much I managed to cram into the last 3 months.

In terms of highlights it's almost impossible to sum up because the whole experience has been so incredible. The Gibbon Experience in Laos and volunteering in Cambodia certainly stand out as 2 of the best things I've ever done. The food everywhere has been insanely good, but if I had to chose I'd say northern Thailand just tipped Malaysia. I've seen some great beaches with my favourite being Soa beach on P island, Vietnam. I've done so many things for the first time such as riding a motorbike, snorkelling, teaching etc, and seen some great wildlife and scenery on my various jungle treks. Then there's the historic and cultural sites topped by the amazing Angkor temples. Then there are the people I've met, the locals who almost always have been incredibly friendly and welcoming, then the fellow travellers I've met, many of whom I hope to stay very good friends with.

So in summary it really has been the best experience I could have every wished for.

So after all that Australia certainly has a lot to live up to ... I've actually been in Oz for a week now (just got a bit behind with the blog). There have already been a few adventures but I'll save those for a different blog as I know Mark and Sarah don't like doing too much reading at once.

Posted by seanio5 06:01 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food singapore chinatown city towers merdeka petronas kl curry little_india hawker kuala_lumper menara Comments (0)

Malaysia

Back Into the Wild

sunny 32 °C

After not getting to spend any time on Thailand's beaches I instead decided to seek out the solitude and better weather of Malaysia's east coast Perhentian Islands. But before that there was the small matter of a stop in the culinary utopia of Penang. This island off Malaysia's North West coast was founded by the British in the 19th Century and became an important trading hub attracting people from all over the world and thus created a multi-cultural mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Burmese, European and many others. This diverse history can be seen in the UNESCO heritage area of George Town which is packed full of colonial buildings. I spent an enjoyable day just wondering around the sites taking in the British town hall and Fort Cornwallis, the crumbling Chinese shophouses and the loud and colourful streets of Little India.
Old and New Penang - Cheong Fatt Tze's Blue Mansion

Old and New Penang - Cheong Fatt Tze's Blue Mansion

Massive incense sticks at Chinese temple, Penang

Massive incense sticks at Chinese temple, Penang

Birds in the sun - Fort Cornwallis, Penang

Birds in the sun - Fort Cornwallis, Penang


However the real splendour of Penang's diverse culture is found in the food. I would get seriously fat living here as the food is so good - from Malay specialities such as freshly barbecued chicken skewers with satay sauce, Nasi Goreng and Hokkien Char, to Chinese Dim Sum and fantastic Indian curries with Malay style Roti Nan. As this is South East Asia it's all cooked fresh at dirt cheap prices at street stalls and eaten by the side of the road - even the occasional rat running past couldn't spoil my enjoyment of the food. The other great thing is that this is backpacker central so it's impossible not to meet people while you eat. The only slight downside is that being a Muslim country alcohol is a lot more expensive here - about £2 for a small can of lager - so my time in Malaysia has been nearly, but not quite, tea total. I am also happy to report that any misconceptions that a Muslim country might not be as friendly as the incredibly hospitable other countries of SE Asia is totally unfounded.
Mm, delicious BBQ'd chicken skewers with Satay sauce

Mm, delicious BBQ'd chicken skewers with Satay sauce

Street food in Penang

Street food in Penang

Cooking Roti Kanis

Cooking Roti Kanis


So with a full belly I set off across to the other side of Malaysia to the Perhentian Islands. This was quite an impulsive decision as I hadn't even heard of the place before arriving in Malaysia, but I read a couple of glowing reviews about quiet white sandy beaches, cheap rustic accommodation, lush jungle and crystal clear sea. Basically I got an image in my mind of a secluded paradise island where I could spend a few days completely chilling out. After 6 hours on a bus, half an hour on a speed boat and a tiny little taxi boat ashore (nearly ashore - still had to wade through the sea a bit) I arrived at Long Beach on Kecil (the slightly smaller of the 2 Perhentian Islands). My idea of a secluded paradise was slightly shattered at the sight of rows of parasol for hire, quite a few dive centres and loads of adverts for snorkelling / boat trips - it was a lot more tourist than I had been led to believe. But despite those little things the beach was long, white and powder soft, with tropical jungle bordering all along. The sea was crystal clear and full of little boats bobbing up and down. There are no roads, cars motorbikes etc, just one path leading across the island so I came to find it a pretty cool place to spend my days laying in the sun, swimming, snorkelling and eating good sea food.
Coral Bay, Pulau Perhentian Kecil

Coral Bay, Pulau Perhentian Kecil


Long BEach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil

Long BEach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil


I called this blog 'Back to the Wild' and part of the reason for that was the accommodation on Kecil. I was expecting rustic but if my 'chalet' had been any more rustic it would have just been a pile of wood. At night there was very little protecting me from the various insects all around and the animals scuttling about below, but that I could live with, what I couldn't live with (for more than 2 days at least) were the toilets!!! So after 2 nights I move to a dorm which was also quite a lot cheaper, however ... I think/ hope this is the worst place I will ever stay in my life, everything was damp, dirty, smelly and covered in ants, at least the toilets were slightly better. The problem with the Perhentian Islands is the budget accommodation fills up fast and nothing can be booked in advance - there are some beautiful resorts if you have the money but I didn't.
My very very very rustic chalet

My very very very rustic chalet


Despite this, the food was again amazing - seafood BBQ's on the beach for dinner were great with the King Fish my favourite, and the Malaysia curried fish was to die for. In addition to the food I had an incredible snorkelling experience. In a tiny little boat we set off around the Perhentian Islands several different sites. The first was Turtle Point where I was instantly rewarded with the site of a huge sea turtle. Next was Fish Point where there was an abundance of tropical fish, I don't know the proper names but I saw Nemo (front Finding Nemo), some zebra fish (small black and white striped fish) which would swim up to about 10cm away from my mask and just looked straight at me, an old man fish (huge fat thing with an grumpy old man’s look on his face), and my favourite - the rave fish (luminous colours which wouldn't have looked out of place at a Happy Mondays gig). The next stop was Shark Point and after 40 minutes in the water I'd given up on sighting Jaws when a reef shark swam right past me. I gave chase and was rewarded with the sight of another of his mates. They were about 1.5 meters long and had sly, menacing looks about them - however they must have known better than to mess with me! Finally we visited the Blue Lagoon which had the most brilliant blue water but was unfortunately full of little jelly fish which gave me a few horrible stings - luckily the nearby beach was a stunningly beautiful place to escape from the water.
Snorkelling gear on the beach

Snorkelling gear on the beach


While discussing vicious animals I should mention my encounter with a real life dragon/dinosaur. While lying on the beach reading a book and minding my own business I heard a rustling coming from within the jungle just a couple of meters away at the top of the beach. As I looked round a huge beast burst out of the tropical shrubs as if to attack me. I didn't have a clue what it was at first - if anything it was the size and shape of a crocodile ... After a few seconds I realised it must be a big Monitor Lizard and I could relax a bit as it probably wouldn't rip any of my limbs off, however I moved away and made sure to sun bathe further down the beach after that.

After 4 days of relaxing I started getting a bit restless (I couldn't be a beach bum who spends weeks on the beach). So with time to spare I made another impulsive decision about were to head next - this time it was to the very centre of peninsula Malaysia and the world’s oldest rainforest at Taman Negara. Having not had a jungle adventure in over 2 months I decided to go on a 2 day, 1 night trek deep into the mighty rainforest. I was in a group with 2 French lads, a Korean guy and a family of 5 Dutch. To start with we had to travel an hour and a half up the Tembeling river (which made it feel incredibly far away from the nearest civilization which is the already remote village of Kuala Taman were we started) and the views from the shallow boat of the river flanked on either side by towering rainforest was quite epic. We did have a lucky escape when the boat driver manned to break the engine mid-way through a rapid!
Epic view aong the Tembeling River

Epic view aong the Tembeling River


The guides for this trek were by far the most informative of the three treks I've done (giving really interesting information about the trees plants and animals we encountered) and despite there not being the adrenaline rush of the gibbon experience or the mighty mountain top views as in Thailand, I got the feeling this was the densest jungle I'd been in and there was certainly more wildlife than anywhere else.
Trekking through thick jungle

Trekking through thick jungle

Rare Black Lily

Rare Black Lily


On this trek there were to be no huts or tree houses complete with food and water to sleep in. Instead we made camp in a cave, and therefore had to carry everything we needed - loads of water, food, utensils, sleeping bag, sleeping mat etc. So carrying this load we trekked 8km each day through thick jungle, up hills and down ravines, across streams and through muddy bogs, scrambling over mighty tree roots and under fallen tree trunks.
Crossing a stream by baboo trunk

Crossing a stream by baboo trunk

Me crossing a muddy jungle swamp

Me crossing a muddy jungle swamp

Setting up camp in our cave

Setting up camp in our cave


We were rewarded for our very sweaty efforts with sighting of marquee monkeys, toucan’s, giant millipedes, a scorpion (dead) and bats in the cave at night. We also came across elephant track but unfortunately the elephants were long gone, fortunately we didn't have to deal with any tigers or deadly snakes which call the jungle of Taman Negara home.
Scorpian - dead fortunately for me

Scorpian - dead fortunately for me


On the second day of the adventure we stopped for lunch by a small stream were we could swim and use a rope swing to launch into the deeper part of the water. At the end as we emerged back out onto the banks of the Tembeling river there was time for another refreshing swim in the murky river waters.
Swimming in the river

Swimming in the river


That brings me pretty much up to date. I’m now safely back in civilization in Kuala Lumpur where I have a few days before a quick visit to Singapore and then my Asian adventure will be over ... but my Australian adventure is now getting very close!

Posted by seanio5 07:04 Archived in Malaysia Tagged snorkelling food rainforest boat beach trek trekking jungle island cave sun chalet swimming penang seafood toucan perhentian curry scorpian rustic båt long_beach taman_negara geroge_town kecil Comments (0)

Cambodia Part 2

Phnom Penh and Angkor

This is slightly out of sequence but before my time in Takeo (check out Cambodia Part 1 blog if you haven't already read about my time volunteering) I first had a couple of nights in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. Much like all the other big Asian cities I've visited it's busy and crowded and chaotic, but what makes Phnom Penh unique is its macabre recent history. Its two biggest attractions (this seems like the wrong word but I guess that's what they are) are both related to the horrendous genocide which took place under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. So traveling with Graeme for the last day, we set out on a rather sombre day with first stop at Tuol Sleng (aka S21). This is a former school which was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge to torture its 'enemies' before sending them to the Killing Fields to be murdered. The grim stats from Toul Sling are that at least 20,000 people were imprisoned here and all but a handful were killed. One of the buildings has been preserved exactly as it was when the Khmer Rouge fled, showing the grim conditions people were people were held. Other buildings now house galleries where photographs of the victims, taken as they arrived for record keeping purposes, stare back at you. The sheer scale of the numbers of pictures of men, women and children is shocking but what was really chilling was knowing that every single one of them was tortured in that very building where I now stood, before being killed.
Faces of Tuol Sleng

Faces of Tuol Sleng


So after Toul Sleng we headed to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the same journey all those prisoners would have made a few decades earlier. As you walk through the quiet fields an audio tour narrated by a survivor does an excellent job of describing the smells, the killing techniques and the general horrors which occurred here. Walking past the trenches of exhumed mass graves which are everywhere, you occasionally notice fragments of bones or teeth which still rise up to the surface. The most chilling section for me was a big beautiful old tree with a small sign next to it marking it out as the place where babies were bludgeoned to death by having their heads smashed into the tree trunk.
Killing Tree at Choeung Ek

Killing Tree at Choeung Ek


The new stupa containing skulls and bones of many of the exhumed bodies is a national memorial to the two million Cambodians who died under the Khmer Rouge. Getting to know about the countries recent history really helped to understand why Cambodia is still such a poor country today. Anyway, despite all that doom and gloom we enjoyed the remainder of our stay in Phnom Penh, eating good street food, drinking cheap beer and enjoying the ambience of the bustling city around the pleasant riverfront area (and avoiding the red light area we had accidentally stumbled across and quickly left the night before).

Then I was back to travelling on my own again, for a few hours at least until arriving in Takeo it was back to Phnom Penh for a very quick stopover before heading on the eighth wonder of the world...

The Temples of Angkor

Having not seen a since temple in over three weeks I decided to spend a whole three days at Angkor taking in the huge number of ancient ruins in the vicinity as well as the famous draws like Angkor Wat. What's more, feeling energetic I decided to rent a bike and cycle everywhere for the three days … it’s an 8km cycle from Siem Reap where I was staying just to get to the park entrance, then probably the same again to reach some of the furthest flung temples, then the walking around the temples and the cycle back all in the blistering Cambodian heat meant that I was absolutely knackered at the end of each day. Luckily the tourist hub of Siem Reap has everything you could need to recover within the confined area around the rather tacky Pub Street – cheap massages, cheap food and even cheaper beer.

On my first day I had a slightly delayed start due to taking the wrong road into the park (although I took the shortest route it turns out you can only buy you ticket on a different route so I had to back track several kilometres before getting started). With a three day pass bought for $40 I set off on the Grand Circuit – a route to the North and West of the Angkor Historical Park along which I stopped at 8 temples and monuments. I think this was a good way to start my three days as each temple was impressive in its own right but maybe they would have been slightly underwhelming if I’d already seen the really impressive temples which I saved for later. I started at Prasat Kravan which is a five stupa monument housing some impressive carvings, followed by my first taste of jungle clad temple ruins at Banteay Kdei. This was followed by the impressive man-made lake at Sras Srang, then the temples of Pre Rup, East Mehon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and finally the largest and most impressive temple on the Grand Circuit Preak Khan. The route itself was pretty quiet of tourists considering how many people visit Angkor every day (lots), however this did mean that I came in for quite a lot of attention from the local kids who besiege you at each stop selling all sorts of tack. One woman in particular expressed an impressively large array of English profanities after telling me to only buy from her stall, and then seeing me buying some fruit from another!
Ta Somand the jungle surrounds

Ta Somand the jungle surrounds

My bike

My bike

Monkeys

Monkeys


Day two was an early start to see sunrise over Angkor Wat, the 900 year old Hindu/Buddhist centrepiece of Angkor and the world’s largest religious monument. This meant setting off at 4:30am and a cycle in the dark to arrive just after 5am. Unfortunately the sky was too cloudy to experience the full glory of the sunrise, and there was some restoration work taking place meaning scaffolding intruded on the photos, but still it was an awe inspiring experience to see such a huge and magnificent monument. Although Angkor Wat is impressive from a distance, for me the sheer size of the place and the intricateness of the carvings which cover just about every square inch are only appreciated from close up. After spending a couple of hours wondering around the temple I headed back to my guest house for breakfast and sleep.
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat 2

Angkor Wat 2

Angkor Wat Carving

Angkor Wat Carving

Angkor Wat Carving 2

Angkor Wat Carving 2


Later that day I headed back to see the huge ancient city of Angkor Thom and its centre piece, the Bayon monument which features 216 faces carved into the stone which look down on you wherever you are. As the sun set I also had time to visit the Baphuon, a huge pyramid temple, and the Royal Palace area featuring the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
Bayon

Bayon

Faces of Bayon

Faces of Bayon


On my final day my legs were starting to ache from all the cycling and walking, but I was rewarded for my efforts with a visit to Ta Prohm. This is the temple ruins which are so overgrown with jungle that no restoration has been carried out to cut back the trees as they have become such an intricate part of the structure that they temple would probably collapse without the roots which smother it. It was also the setting of the Tomb Raider film and left me wanting to watch the movie again despite remembering that it was pretty terrible first time round.
Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm 2

Ta Prohm 2


Finally I visited a few small temples I hadn’t yet seen and finished with a climb up Ta Keo, a huge pyramid temple which for some reason was never finished with the intricate carvings which cover all the other temples. The lack of carvings really makes you acknowledge the scale of the building and boggles the mind as to how such huge structures were built around 1000 years ago.

Although I could have probably seen everything in slightly less time if I’d wanted, the three days was a good amount of time to take in everything at a leisurely pace without feeling rushed. Unfortunately as I left Cambodia something upset my stomach(possibly the water I used for brushing my teeth which at times came out of the taps brown, or possibly my last meal which was a breakfast soup from a market on the way to the boarder – I’ll presume it was the water as I don’t want to spoil the memory of all the great market breakfast I enjoyed in Cambodia) and coupled with a throat infection (which was only temporarily halted with a mix of unknown drugs from a Cambodian pharmacy), meant that my planned week seeing Thailand’s beaches and islands was actually spent pretty much confined to hotel rooms and bathrooms. I did eventually make it out to Krabi’s Railay Beach but by the time I was fit enough to get out the weather had taken a turn for the worse so all I had was a day of grey skies and rain. Still coughing and wheezing I gave up on the hope of rock climbing up the incredible karst cliffs or exploring the coast by kayak and instead decided to cut my losses in Thailand and head straight to Malaysia…
Krabi's coastline from the boat ride to Railay Beach

Krabi's coastline from the boat ride to Railay Beach

Incredible scenery from West Railay Beach, Krabi during a brief break from the rain

Incredible scenery from West Railay Beach, Krabi during a brief break from the rain

Posted by seanio5 04:46 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple ruins phnom_penh siem_reap angkor bayon wat prison bike killing ta_prohm s21 genocide cycle killing_fields khmer_rouge tuol_sleng Comments (0)

Cambodia Part 1

Volunteering

I apologise that there hasn’t been a blog in quite a while – I have infact written this blog twice already over the last couple of weeks, on both occasions it was a witty, insightful, moving piece of writing which probably would have won prizes, however due to technical issues I’ve lost both versions of this excellent blog and have had to start again. Therefore I’m really bored of writing it now, but for anyone who's interested in what I was up to for my month in Cambodia, here is part one:

The majority of my time was spent volunteering in Takeo at a place called New Futures Organisation (NFO), and despite my initial thoughts that I'd have a bit more time to myself here to write blogs etc, I've was so busy and had such an amazing time I didn't get a single free moment to do anything of the sort.

Arriving Takeo I felt million miles away from the backpack trail I’d become used to, this provincial town a couple of hours from the capitol doesn't see many tourists. NFO is a charity which runs an orphanage for around 50 orphaned or abused kids, runs two local village schools as well as a whole host of other community work, please check out their website for more info www.newfuturesorganisation.com. I wasn't too sure what to expect when I arrived but it probably wasn't the number of other volunteers already there, mostly British but also a few Ausies and Kiwis, at one point there were 22 of us. Accommodation for the volunteers was in a big communal house in Takeo town, about 2km from the orphanage, for most of the time I was sharing with GP Luke from the Wirral.

Takeo is like a different world compared to home: people still use horse and cart for transporting goods, as well as ancient 100cc motorbikes which pull huge trailers, cars are pretty uncommon. For me transport was by rickety old push bike which had no brakes, no gears and usually at least one flat tyre. I can honestly say it is teh friendliest place I've ever been, on average I wpould say hello about 100 times a kids and adults alike delighted in shouting to you as you cycle past. There are no supermarkets in Takeo, instead most things can be bought at the market, my first visit to which was an experience. Walking through the clothes and fruit section was typical of any Asian market, then a smell hit me and as I looked down a huge rat ran past, chased by a small child. When I looked up again I realised I was in the meat section - a vast expanse of stalls with EVERY conceivable part of the pigs and cows laid out all around. Grim little anecdote if you are veggie, at night the screeches of pigs being slaughtered ready for market the next morning would ring out for all to hear, there's no humane technology here so a cut to the throat is followed by about 30 seconds of hideous squealing per pig.
Kidswaiting to say hello as you cycle past

Kidswaiting to say hello as you cycle past


Pony and Cart pulling some big sticks

Pony and Cart pulling some big sticks

Which duck would you like?

Which duck would you like?

Anyway, back to the reason I was in Takeo which was to teach English. There are several opportunities for volunteers who want to teach, you can help with additional lessons for the orphanage kids, there's also the local police and monks as well as the remote village schools which is what I chose to do. Little Po school is about 8km outside Takeo, set up by NFO it provides invaluable free English education to the local kids who can't afford private school. There are over 200 students from infants up to 13 years old, only one classroom, and only one teacher, a really inspirational young man called Tiem. When there are no volunteers he teaches all 200+ kids together, so having people to help makes a massive difference. Like many of the kids, he works in the rice paddies when not at school. To say that some of the kids have virtually nothing isn't much of an understatement, many would wear the same ripped T-shirt every day, plastic bags are common as school bags, most of the houses in the village are wooden huts which use car batteries for power and the village itself doesn't have a single paved road or car. Infact with all the livestock roaming free everywhere it kind of made me think of what an English village would probably been like in the middle ages.Typical village house

Typical village house

Pigs everywhere

Pigs everywhere

On my first day I expected to maybe watch and learn but instead was thrown straight in for my first ever experience of teaching. I was given a class of 30 aged from 10-13, a white board and marker, and was sent to the nearby temple and a makeshift classroom in an open pagoda. After what I'll admit was probably a very shaky start I must have recalled some inspiration from my early school days and I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of teaching thereafter, it's impossible not to when the kids are so energetic and eager to learn. Much singing, dancing and interactive games (along with some actual teaching) made up my lessons. However I don't think I’m a natural born teacher, I had to put in a huge amount of prep before school each day to ensure the class didn't fall into anarchy (which I’m ashamed to admit happened the one time I tried to teach with a hangover and no lesson plan).

So for three weeks I did my very best to teach my 30 students (and on some occasions when I was the only volunteer it was 90 kids in my class!) as much as I could to improve their English skills, and to pass on a little bit of a Lancashire accent too. It’s amazing the bond you make in such a short space of time, when it came to my final day I was bowled over by the send off I got from the entire school – letters and drawing from every pupil telling me how handsome I am, how good a teacher I am, and asking that I never forget them.
My classin the temple/classroom

My classin the temple/classroom

Posers

Posers

The only classroom at Little Po

The only classroom at Little Po

Little Po infants outside their classroom

Little Po infants outside their classroom

School kids running after us as we cycle home from school

School kids running after us as we cycle home from school

During the weeks in Takeo I settled into a daily routine for the first time while travelling. Mornings would start with breakfast at the market, followed by my preparations for school and a trip to the photocopy shop to get any materials I needed. Then I’d cycle the beautifully scenic 8km out to school (luckily the kids were always keen to help me cool down by fanning me with their exercise books when I arrived). Three hours of teaching with a break for an iced coffee half way through, then back on the bike and usually straight on to the orphanage, stopping for a refreshing fruit shake en-route. At the orphanage I’d have to muster some more energy to play football, wrestling or whatever physically exhausting activity the kids wanted. After dinner most volunteers would congregate on the balcony for a drink or two or lots. There isn’t much night life in Takeo, infact there is a curfew at 11pm, so the only thing to do is go to a small karaoke place nearby (which also double as a brothel for locals!). I’m not usually a big fan of karaoke but after drinking games involving the local ‘Super Whisky’ which cost 50p a bottle, and with large a group of newfound friends, a great time was had belting out the limited selection of classic tunes. Karaoke was so good that we ended up going 5 times while I was there.
Market Breakfast

Market Breakfast

Weekends were a bit different as there's no school. I'd try to get to the orphanage for a while each day but other than that it was pretty much free time. Still we managed to keep busy. My favourite day had to be the pool party and BBQ day. It started with all the orphanage kids coming round to play in the swimming pool (to give a bit of context, one of the local school teachers who was there had never in his life seen a swimming pool before that day). Then we cooked a huge amount of food on a BBQ before starting various drinking games (the orphanage kids had gone home by this point) including Pictionary (don't knock it till you've tried it), then karaoke, then a late night viewing of the euro quarter final (the only slight down side being that England lost).
Pool Party 1

Pool Party 1

Pool Party 2

Pool Party 2

Pool Party - empty pop bottles for floats

Pool Party - empty pop bottles for floats

Boys around the BBQ

Boys around the BBQ

Another fantastic day was when nine volunteers took 100 local school kids on a day trip to Angkor Borie, the oldest temple in Cambodia. Luckily health and safety regulations don't apply here as we travelled up river by chartered boat (usually used for transporting bricks so absolutely no safety equipment onboard). The best part of the day was the 1km walk from boat to temple, just after getting off the boat the heavens opened turning the mud path into a mud bath and ensured just about everyone got covered in mud (think Glastonbury on the wettest years).
School trip to Angkor Borei

School trip to Angkor Borei

A few other little anecdotes from my time in Takeo:
• In addition to the rat at the market I had encounters with several others - one jumped out of the oven at me and proceeded to run around the kitchen for a while causing quite a lot of havoc. On another occasion, after a football match / mud fight at the orphanage the kids went for a swim in the murky pond to clean off, not wanting to be shown up the volunteers who'd been playing also jumped in, only to turn around a see a giant rat settling out of the water (looking back there were probably snakes and assorts in there, not to mention a few deadly diseases). And finally on the rat front, saw some locals carrying a bag full of skinned rats ready to be cooked.
• On the snake and spider front, only saw one live snake, it was quite a small chap who was slithering across the road as I cycled past, then I swear it jumped at Luke as he cycled past (luckily it didn’t manage to strike him with its deadly venom (not sure if it was actually poisonous but it’s more dramatic to presume it was). The spiders were more prevalent, in total there were 5 spottings, with the smallest being the size of a child’s hand and the biggest the size of a large man’s hand (make that a hairy large man’s hand as the spider was very hairy).
• 5 people is still the most I’ve seen on a single motorbike (seen in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia). However it was quite funny to see three volunteers and a broken bike plus the driver all on one moto.
• I have now tried a few varieties of bugs, in addition to the one I tried in Bangkok, I’ve now had a couple sautéed in chilli and lemongrass which was a big improvement. Stopped short of trying dog!
• For my birthday I had a great night out in Kampot, although the stream of happy hour bars did take their toll on me. En-route to Kampot my bus curse continued – packed into a tiny minivan with 12 other people and 4 motorbikes, we ran out of petrol not once but twice.

So incase you didn’t get the jist, I had an amazing three and a bit weeks volunteering in Cambodia. I met some fantastic people and made loads of new friends who I hope to stay in touch with. NFO is an amazing organisation and I urge you to check out their website and make a donation if you can because I’ve seen just how valuable the work is that they do. Unlike many organisations which charge you huge sums of money to volunteer, NFO don’t ask for anything more than the cost of registering you and completing the relevant legalities, although most volunteers happily make a donation before leaving or end up sponsoring a child. The teaching has been one of the best experiences of my life, even if I’ve not discovered a new career path, the experience of meeting and bonding with the kids is truly inspirational. My only regret is that I hadn’t scheduled more time to stay longer, but I think I will definitely be going back in the future.
No rules about using a mobile while driving here

No rules about using a mobile while driving here

Cow in the road on the way to school

Cow in the road on the way to school

Luanching a chinese lantern covered in the kids wishes

Luanching a chinese lantern covered in the kids wishes

Disco at the orphanage

Disco at the orphanage

Posted by seanio5 05:57 Archived in Cambodia Tagged football market cambodia rural school english volunteering orphanage volunteer cycle teaching takeo teach nfo Comments (0)

South Vietnam

Saigon and Phu Quoc Island

Arrived in Saigon, or to give it the official name - Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, home to 7 million people and apparently 5 million motorbikes,so you can imagine the traffic madness on the streets (and usually the pavements too). Stayed for three nights at the Saigon Backpackers on Pham Ngu Lao which is he backpacker centre of the city, back in a dorm for the first time in a while to save a touch of money but meant late nights and early mornings as people with the disturbance of people coming and going.

On our first full day we set off on foot through the early morning traffic (don't think there is a specific rush hour - just a constant rush) to see the sights of central Saigon. First stop was the War Remnants museum detailing the Vietnam/American war. The war crimes section about the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on civilians by the US was particularly moving, showing how the effects are still being felt with people still being born with horrendous birth defects due to the highly toxic dioxin found in Agent Orange and other 'weapons'. Also interesting was the vast collection of photographs from war photographers, most of whom were killed in the conflict. Also visited Re-unification Palace, originally built as the presidential palace of South Vietnam in the 1960's, and kept exactly as it was in 1975 when the war ended with the fall of Saigon - the design was strangely reminiscent of a bond villains secret complex.
Reunification palace

Reunification palace


On our second day we took a trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels for a fascinating look at a part of the tunnel complex the Vietcong built during the war. The tunnels stretched hundreds of miles and were used for escaping after guerrilla attacks, for moving undetected, transporting supplies and even for living in for long periods. At Cu Chi we got to crawl through about 100m of a tunnel which had been widened for 'larger' western visitors, still it was incredibly tight and claustrophobic, moving was really hard work and the heat unbearable, you can only imagine the conditions for the Vietcong with rats, snakes, spiders, toilet waste, dead soldiers etc all down there and bombs raining above ground. The tunnels also contained booby traps to get the US troops who volunteered to go into the tunnels to flush out the Vietcong - surely this would have been one of the worst jobs in history.
Chu Chi tunnels - tight fit even for Graeme's short arse

Chu Chi tunnels - tight fit even for Graeme's short arse


Celebrated Graeme's birthday while in Saigon with a curry at Mumtaz (not the same one as back home but very good and a nice change from SE Asian curries), followed by a few beers while watching the football. I also had to stock up on a few new clothes (the sweat, suntan lotion, deet, etc have all taken their toll), the markets of Asia only seem to sell one type of shorts - big and ugly, luckily Saigon has some nice little boutique clothes shops were I was able to get some slightly more aestheticly pleasing stuff including a very nice pair of Paul Smith shorts for £6!

Final day around Saigon we took a trip to the Mekong delta. Much like the other organised trips we took in Vietnam it was very touristy, frustratingly delayed setting off and included the obligatory stop at a handycraft place so the driver/guide could get their commission. Still it was interesting to see the way people live by the water. Got to sample some of the local fruits, whisky, honey and coconut sweets, took a little bike ride until the path was blocked by a rabid dog, and also got to hold a python which was pretty horrible but at least I got a cool photo from it.
Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Snakes Attack

Snakes Attack


So we left Saigon thoroughly exhausted from the constant buzz of noise and traffic and set off for a few days R&R on Phu Quoc Island off the southern coast of Vietnam. The journey didn't start well when our sleeper bus turned out to be a regular bus so no sleeping for me that night, however it was the first bus to arrive on time which was lucky as we'd already bought our tickets for the 8am ferry.

After 2 and a half hours on the boat (witnessing lots of people being sea sick), we arrived on the small island which is a world away from Saigon. There's only one tarmacked road and even this is just a thin strip with rubble run offs along the sides for passing vehicles, the other roads are incredibly bumpy dirt tracks. There are no street lights meaning a torch is essential at night, mass tourism hasn't taken off yet so you don't get the constant barrage of offers for motos, taxis, massage, marijuana etc which you get everywhere else. Our accommodation for the three day stay was a rustic little bungalow just a few meter from the beach and complete with hammocks on the porch and a huge spider in the bathroom. It's the perfect location for chilling out with a book, watching the sunset on the beach and eating some great sea food.
Waterfall on Phu Quoc

Waterfall on Phu Quoc

Sunset at Long Beach - Phu Quoc

Sunset at Long Beach - Phu Quoc

Sunset at Long Beach - this part of the beach is just 20 meters from our bungalow

Sunset at Long Beach - this part of the beach is just 20 meters from our bungalow


Rented a motorbike to get around, although some of the roads are so bad and you have to go slow that at one point two kids on a push bike went zooming past us. Started with a ride to a waterfall in the centre of the island which was pleasant and then continued on to the other side of the island to Sao Beach. Located down a long and bumpy track, this is my favourite beach I've ever been to. A quiet stretch of the softest powder white sand, warm shallow water that stretches way out to the small fishing boats, palm trees at the top of the beach and thick jungle covering the hills behind.
Picture perfect - Sao Beach

Picture perfect - Sao Beach

Sao Beach - Boat

Sao Beach - Boat

Boot washed ashore covered in barnacles

Boot washed ashore covered in barnacles

Sao Beach - perfect sky

Sao Beach - perfect sky

Sao Beach - Fishing Boat

Sao Beach - Fishing Boat

Self timer picture on Sao Beach

Self timer picture on Sao Beach

Graeme 'Steve McQueen' Jackson

Graeme 'Steve McQueen' Jackson


The only disappointment from Phu Quoc was that our snorkelling and fishing trip which we booked for the last day was a bit of a wash out, light drizzle and cloud throughout the day in addition to the downpoor the night before meant it was hard to see any coral or fish under the water. Despite this Phu Quoc was still an amazing place to relax and recover from the madness of Saigon - however if anyone is thinking of going you should do it soon, an international airport, proper road network and huge beach resorts are all being built so unfortunately the quiet rustic charm might not last much longer.

Before leaving on the early ferry there was just time for one last breakfast of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) from an anciently old woman preparing it at the side of the road, this dish has been a staple of my diet for the last 3 weeks. So I left Vietnam with some fantastic memories, yeah there were a few disappointments early on and some things were a bit touristy but still it's an amazing country, the cities are mad and hectic but a great experiences and make arriving at the chilled out and beautiful places like Hoi An and Phu Quoc all the better.

Posted by seanio5 03:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boat sunset tunnels beach vietnam island saigon war mekong motorbike hcmc delta phu_quoc cu_chi hoa_chi_minh vietcong pho_bo Comments (0)

Cental Coast of Vietnam

Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang

sunny 35 °C

First stop after Hanoi was the ancient city of Hue, former capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, and also the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam war (and the setting for the film Full Metal Jacket). Arrived early after our first experience of a night bus which was uncomfortable and fairly sleepless. Ate breakfast at Mandarin Cafe next door to our hotel, the cafe is run by a famous local photographer and we both got free prints of some of his work. From there we set off on a walking tour of the city which took in the main sites across the Perfume river and around the huge Citadel, the old walled city built by the ruling Nguen dynasty from 1804 with the help of the French. Our first stop was the Hue Imperial museum for some cultural perspective, then on to the Forbidden City - the royal temples within the citadel. Although there was massive damage caused by the US war and natural disasters, you still get a sense of the former grandeur of the place. Interesting fact - much of the palace was only accessible to the emperor, his female concubines and male eunuchs, presumably because they posed no threat to his masculinity!
Hue - Citadel

Hue - Citadel

Hue - Forbidden Palace

Hue - Forbidden Palace

Just the one day in Hue was plenty of time so the next morning we got a 4 hour bus to Hoi An further down the coast. Hoi An is definitely my favourite place in Vietnam so far, an old UNESCO protected town of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, French and other European influences. There are quaint houses and gift shops everywhere, all draped with Chinese lanterns and climbing plants in full bloom, the restaurants and food are superb, we found a great backpacker place with draught beer for just 3000 dong (less than 10p), and to top it all there's a beautiful 5km stretch of beach just 20 minutes bike ride away, what more could you ask for?

We spent three and a half days in Hoi An. Our hotel was the An Phu which for just £7 for a twin room also had a swimming pool, we spent one day at the beach, took a trip out to the Cham ruins at My Son (not that exciting) and also managed to meet up for dinner and drinks with Anna, Jerri, Sophie and Nicola, my Kiwi traveling friends.
French Villa - Hoi An

French Villa - Hoi An

Fisherman in Hoi An

Fisherman in Hoi An

The highlight of Hoi An was the cooking class at Cafe 96, a great little restaurant on the river front. At first the decor appeared to be all shabby chic and distressed which looked really cool, but then realised it was actually just the flood damage which had made it look like that. About 6 foot up on one wall is the waterline from their 2009 flood, and at about 7 foot up is the waterline from the 2011 flood. The class was a bit different from the one I'd done in Thailand, less a cooking lesson and more a cook along with the chef. We started with Vietnamese spring rolls (so I can now do 2 varieties of spring rolls), followed by green papaya shrimp salad and spicy fried eggplant. And the piece de resistance, lemongrass fish cooked in banana leaf on a wood fire. Ate everything with our cooking partners, an older Australian couple who seemed to have come back to Hoi An mainly for this restaurant.
Cafe 96 across teh river in Hoi An

Cafe 96 across teh river in Hoi An

Coking lesson

Coking lesson


Cooking

Cooking

Left Hoi An on Sunday evening for another night bus, this time to the sea side town of Nha Trang. A strange place really, not dissimilar to a typical Spanish seaside town just with more Vietnamese people and food, and also more Russians - I suppose Russians have to go on holiday somewhere but just wasn't expect it to be here. Anyway there isn't a huge amount to do in Nha Trang other than sun bathing on the beach and scuba diving, so we chilled on the beach (which allowed plenty of time to read my Vietnam history book so I am now fully aware of the war and everything that went on - reading it in a place which is mentioned on multiple occasions gives real context to the history). Didn't quite get to scuba diving but did go snorkeling. This was a really great experience, for just £12 we got boated out to near to Hon Mun (about an hour off the coast of Vietnam) and from there spent over 2 hours floating around with perfect views of the coral and sea life below. Visibility was really good so we could see everything really well, from the surface what just appears to be dark shapes suddenly turns into a multi coloured array of beautiful corals. The fish were all around, from the thousands of tiny little ones passing by in huge schools, to the brightly coloured ones that seemed to illuminate light, to the seahorses and jelly fish, I hadn't expected to see so much sea life. Also included in our trip was a really nice lunch and drinks an fruit so it really was a bargain little adventure.
Snorkeling

Snorkeling

Two days and one night was plenty of time to see everything worthwhile in Nha Trang (apart from the beach there's really not much going for it), so again we got another night bus to leave central Vietnam and go to Saigon.

I won't bore you with another massive story about a bus journey, but this one was another long saga - the short of it is that our supposedly 9 hour journey took over 24 hours due to our bus being impounded by the police not far outside of Nha Trang. Not sure what the issue was but we had to wait until 9:30 in the morning for a replacement, then had a 10 hour journey.

So a slightly unfortunate end to what had been a very nice week along the central coast of Vietnam. Starting to learn just to accept the inevitable bus problems, and even though they are annoying at the time it's all worth it to experience beautiful places like Hoi An.

Posted by seanio5 09:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food boat beach culture bus palace french cooking snorkeling hue hoi_an citadel nha_trang Comments (2)

A Week in North Vietnam

Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay

overcast

The first thing that struck me on the way to the hotel from Hanoi airport was just how peacefully underdeveloped Laos had been, for an entire week there had been no incessant beeping of horns, no traffic, no ugly high rise buildings, and no one trying to rip you off at every corner. So long to all that, Hanoi does it all with avengance, starting with the taxi driver who promised the journey could be paid in dollars, only on arrival to decide he only wanted Dong and with a very unfavourable exchange rate, what can you do other than pay? At least it was only a couple of pound more. On the subject of exchange rates, upon withdrawing cash I instantly became a VVietnamese multi-millionaire due to one pound being worth 32,500 dong!

At the Splendid Jupiter hotel (not too shabby but not all that splendid, and certainly nothing like the photos on its website) I met Graeme, my little brother who I'll be spending the next 3 weeks in Vietnam with. The rain was torrential as we headed out to get some tea, we had to wade through water a foot deep so didn't get very far or see much of the city that first night, but did find a decent little restaurant which had large bottles of Tiger Beer for 10,000 dong (about 30p) - cheaper than water.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - Hanoi

Hanoi

Hanoi


Our first full day in Hanoi was spent walking around the old quarter, and our second day was spent walking round the new quarter, by which time we had just about figured out how to cross a road when a non stop stream of hundreds of motorbikes, cars, buses and bikes head towards you on a 4 lane road, and a few go the wrong way too just to keep you on your toes. Turns out you just start walking and amazingly the drones of vehicles part ways and go around you, much like most of Hanoi it should be complete chaos but actually it just works. The first day we took in the cultural highlights of the old quarter including the Women's Museum and Hoa Lo prison, both with superbly propagandist displays "the evil French colonialists who brutally tortured the beautiful people of our motherland" etc etc. I found the water puppetry which is supposed to be another cultural highlight completely rubbish - sorry, I just don't get puppetry if it isn't Thunderbirds of Team America. Another wet night followed but we did find a beautiful restaurant for tea - Little Hanoi 1 (managed to avoid the fake one a few doors before it), only six tables and it was packed full but the food was well worth the wait. On second day we took in the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum before we'd had enough of the heat, noise and general mayhem of Hanoi. It is a great city to experience but 2 days was plenty for us. On the positive side we did find some great street stalls serving delicious Pho Bo (Hanoi speciality of beef noodle soup).

Sleeper Train

Sleeper Train


That night we left for Sapa and our first experience of a sleeper train. The beds in our 4 berth cabin were far more comfortable than the hotel so got a great nights sleep before the 5am arrival at Cao Lai and windey minibus journey up to Sapa, an old French hill station high in the Northern Vietnamese highlands. With the altitude came beautifully cool temperature (about 18 degrees) but also lots of rain and mist. The first days walk to a local Hmong village was pretty average (made worse by the hoards of Japanese tourists, especially the ones who hand out bagfulls of sweets to the local children), but the highlight of Sapa was the second days much longer trek through the hills of steeped rice paddies, tended by water buffalo, and to several much more remote tribal villages. The only annoyance is the group of Hmong tribeswomen who accompany you and then start the most insane sales efforts to get you to by their handicrafts - it's actually quite unpleasant how desperate they are for you to buy things. Rice terraces of Sapa

Rice terraces of Sapa

Kids riding a Water Buffalo in Sapa

Kids riding a Water Buffalo in Sapa

Carrying Rice in Sapa

Carrying Rice in Sapa

Another sleeper train back to Hanoi and then we were straight on to a bus to Halong Bay. We'd booked Sapa and Halong Bay as organised tours, it felt like a bit of a cheat not doing it all independently but northern Vietnam is kind of completely set up for this thing, plus it was nice to let someone else organise everything for a few days. Our Halong Bay package involved a night on a Junker boat and tour of the bay followed by a day and night on Cat Ba island, the largest island in the bay. The scenery is beautiful with the hundreds of islands rising high out of the calm sea, but ultimately I just found the experience a bit underwhelming. Maybe my expectations had been too high, maybe it was the fact everything was so touristy and busy, or maybe it was the food we got which was pretty terrible, but it just wasn't what I'd hoped for. Cat Ba island was the same, some great scenery and a lovely beach, but too many local tourists making it a bit like the Benidorm of Vietnam.
Setting sail onboard our Junker in Halong Bay

Setting sail onboard our Junker in Halong Bay

Fishing boat in Halong Bay

Fishing boat in Halong Bay

Dusk swim in Halong Bay

Dusk swim in Halong Bay

Sunset over the fishing port on Cat Ba Island

Sunset over the fishing port on Cat Ba Island

Graeme at the top of a tall tower at thr top of a tall mountain on Cat Ba island

Graeme at the top of a tall tower at thr top of a tall mountain on Cat Ba island

Beach time - all the locals on the beach at Cat Ba Island

Beach time - all the locals on the beach at Cat Ba Island

Back in Hanoi there was just time to discover another fantastic little dive of a restaurant (if you can call a little room with plastic tables and chairs and all the food cooked on a single gas ring in the corner). Gordon Ramsey wouldn't be impressed with the hygiene but the food was great - although we've no idea what it actually was. The weather in Hanoi that evening was really nice and with it the streets were packed with people - eating, drinking, socialising, they just do everything on the streets and it makes for a really great atmosphere which we had missed previously due to the rain. Then it was on to a sleeper bus (another first) for the 14 hour journey South to Hue. I won't bore you with more bus tales, but the sleeper bus is that good for sleeping.

I can't say that North Vietnam has been my favourite place so far, but it has mostly been an interesting experience with a few very good highlights.

Posted by seanio5 05:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged islands hills boat trek swimming sapa hanoi halong ho_chi_minh halong_bay sa_pa rice-paddies Comments (0)

Luang Prabang

Believe the hype

sunny
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Argh, the internet in Vietnam is so annoying, if it's not blocking facebook it's just not working, I tried to post this last week but it mustn't have worked so apologies for the delay.

After the epic bus journey through Laos I decided to stay put in one place for a while, luckily that place was Luang Prabang, one the most relaxed, beautiful and scenic places I’ve ever been to.

Before I started this trip I’d never even heard of the small Lao city of Luang Prabang, luckily the glowing descriptions in Lonley Planet persuaded me to visit. The city is set on a small peninsula bounded by the Mekong river on one side and the Nam Khan river on the other before they meet at the tip of the old town. The entire town is a Unesco protected, beautiful mix of gleaming Buddhist Wats and old colonial French villas. The lack of traffic, noise and in-your-face advertising provided fantastic respite from the other Asian cities I’ve been to so far. The French influence also means that there are fantastic cafes and bakeries on every street.

After catching up on some sleep, me and team New Zealand headed out to Utopia, a chilled out bar featuring oriental gardens, a bamboo veranda looking over the river, yoga classes, volleyball court and fantastic food – the Chicken Laap (traditional meal of minced Chicken with spicies, rice and salad) was my favourite meal in Laos. There is a strict curfew in LP which means everything shuts at 23:30, except that is for the bowling alley, so there we headed for a surprisingly fun night.

The next day started with breakfast at JoMa, a great bakery just round the corner from our guest house were we met with a few people from the night before, two Canadian’s and yet another Kiwi! We decided to hire motorbikes (the asian type which are slightly more like scooters than Harley's) as an interesting way to get the Kuang Si waterfalls which are 35km out of town. It was a great to see the country, even if it took me a little while to get the hang of it. The waterfalls were stunning, a series of small turqiose laggons with crystal clear water cascading down into more lagoons, perfect for swimming, relaxing and cooling down from blazing heat.
Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Bear Rescue Centre at Kuang Si waterfalls

Bear Rescue Centre at Kuang Si waterfalls

Me and the Kiwi gang taking a break from the bikes

Me and the Kiwi gang taking a break from the bikes

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Mum, you can breath again, I survived the motorbike, bad news for you is that I really really enjoyed it and will probably hire one again soon and I'm thinking of buying one when I get back home.

Saturday 19th was to be my last day of travelling with my new Kiwi friends, that afternoon they boarded a bus to Vang Vieng to go tubing but I decided against it as it would have meqnt spending most of my last few day in Laos on a bus, plus there was still plenty to do in Luang Prabang. On our final day we chartered a long boat to take us 2 hours up the Mekong to Pak Ou caves as recommended by Lonely Planet. On this occasion lonley planets advice was a bit of a let down, the cave weren't particularly special, however the boat trip was a nice way to see some of the sights along the Mekong without having to spend 2 days on slow boat. View from boat en route to Pak Ou caves

View from boat en route to Pak Ou caves

So at 18:00 I waved goodbye to all my new friends, it seems we've done so much together this past week and I can't wait to meet up agin in NZ if not before. Back on my own but it was nice to have a few days to myself to catch up on the blog, my journal and to properly explore LP.  So the next 2 days were spent relaxing in coffee shops, sampleing the finest pastries and cakes on offer and wandering the old streets and rickety bamboo bridges leading further affield. Bamboo Bridge

Bamboo Bridge

The selection of gifts/souvenirs/home decorations on offer at the night market and in the little boutique shops is fantastic and much better quality than other places, it's a real shame I don't have the space to buy anything. My final evening was spent at the top of mount Phou Si, the Wat topped hill in the centre of town, watching the sunset over the Mekong river and behind the epic mountains which cover this county. It was one of those moments which gives you goosebumps at the stunning beauty of it all.P1050146.jpg

My final day in LP was an early start, up and out by 05:30 in order to catch the Tak Bat ceremony when all the monks from all the Wats come out an proceed through the town collecting Alms from the local people. Its quite a sight seeing hundreds of orange robbed monks getting handouts of food at sunrise.P1050163

P1050163

 

Then I was off to the airport for my flight to Hanoi. Despite the bus saga and not getting to Vang Vieng I've had the most amazing week in Laos.

Posted by seanio5 03:26 Archived in Laos Tagged wat waterfall french villas luang_prabang mekong motorbike wats bakery kuang_si Comments (0)

Buses

Please, no more buses


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When you start researching a trip around South East Asia you come accross many a tale of horrendous bus journeys. Much like if you check a hotel on Trip Advisor you alway get at least one bad one from someone who is just being really picky, I presumed the buses would be similar ... not great but as long as you are prepared for the odd hick-up and slight bit of uncomfotableness you'll be fine. The relative luxury of my first 2 journeys on Thailands govermnet opperated buses only affirmed my assumptions.

However, after my last two journeys I'm starting to see what people mean. Things started taking a turn for the worse on the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong to cross the boarder into Laos. Travelling with Mark on route to the Gibbon Experience we needed to be at the boarder by 6pm when it closes for the night, otherwise we couldn't do the gibbon the next day. Arrived at Chiang Mai Arcade bus station 15 minutes prior to the bus departure expecting to just pick up a ticket as I'd done on previous occasions, only to be greated with an almighty queue for the Green Bus company, they use an Argos style system where to get a number and wait for it to be called before you go forward and purchase your ticket, our number was 261 and the current position was 201. Thinking we might just be able to pay on the bus we went to the departure point but were told we needed a ticket to board. Back at the queue with less than 5 minute until departure the number had move onto 602, clearly no chance of getting to 261 in the next hour never midn the next few minutes. As it moved to 603 Mark jumped in exclaiming to the opperator that he was 603 but had loat his number, miraculously it worked. However when asking for 2 tickets we were told the bus was already full, 'no' we had to be on that bus or we wouldn't get to the boarder in time. Another check of the system and actually there were 2 seats remaining, not together but who cared? Next obstacle, getting on the bus. As everyone else pilled on we showed our tickets to the inspector only to be told this wasn't our bus. Slightly confused we stood back as the last passengers boarded, luckily a different ticket inspector looked at our ticket and directed us onto the bus. Phew, we were actually on the bus.

The standard width bus had 5 seats accross meaning they were all too narrow to actually fit a real person on, and the person sat next to me was huge meaning I spent the next 7 hours sat with one bum cheak on a seat and one bum cheak hovering over the aisle, and the moulded edge of the seat running straight down my spine. Another little twist in the journey was when we stopped half way for a break, we were told we had 20 minutes so went to get some food, strolling back 15 minutes later, Anna, one the Kiwi girls sat near us started yelling for us to run as the bus was already going, if she hadn't insisted they wait the bus would have gone without us. All in all it seamed like a small miracle when we actually arrived at Chiang Khong at 4pm (only an hour and a half late) and got across the boarder into Laos.

The next journey was the one that really broke the camels back. After the Gibbon Experience I decided to continue on to Luang Prabang (LP) with Mark and the 4 Kiwi girls (from now on my expanding group of New Zealand friends will just be referred to as the Kiwis). Decided on an overnight VIP bus which leaves at 17:00 and would have us in LP early next morning, this seaming like a much better idea than another night in Huay Xai followed by 2 days on a slow boat. Dropped back in Huay Xai at 14:00 we planned to book the bus, shower and eat, however soon came across a problem, all but one of the 'travel agents' in Huay Xai told us the 17:00 VIP bus was cancelled. All of us were sceptical after similar tales in Thailand so we took a tuk tuk to the bus station, only to be told the same, however a 15:00 bus was just about to leave, not VIP so no air con but as it was our only option we paid the 120000kip fee (£9) and boarded. Conveniently all the locals bunched together at the front leaving us a double seat each at the back. So off we set on a supposedly 10 hour journey. None of us had showered in days and we must have stunk in our dirty jungle clothes but with the windows open and all sat together for company it didn't seem too bad.

At about midnight the fun began. First the nice smooth highway ended and was replaced by the notorious pot holed Lao roads; seriously some of the pot holes are so big you literally leave your seat as you bump though them, and one memorable pot hole was so big the bus had to reverse out as it couldn't get out the other side. At about 03:00 as we dosed in an out of painfully uncomfortable sleep the bus stopped and wouldn't start up ... half an hours rest and a few whacks to the battery with a hammer and we were off again. But only for a
short distance. The next breakdown was much more serious, something to do with the clutch, the conductor’s efforts with various spanners were no use, it was terminal. I awoke again at about 05:30 to be told the driver had disappeared, no one knew where we where, no one else on the bus spoke English and no one could get internet or phone reception - basically we were stuck. We waited for another couple of hours as locals along the road awakened and a stream of school kids found the sight of us outside a broken down bus very interesting (clearly they don't get many visitors in this part of Laos - presumably because there is nothing there of interest).

Eventually some help arrived - one minivan to transport about 40 people, baggage and the rice an other food products which lined the aisle of the bus. We were told to get into the van which was already packed fuller than a tin of sardines, so we refused. A pickup arrived and eventually we were off towards LP. A hundred meters down the road though, we stopped, our driver had a huge argument with another driver who wanted us to go with him despite his van already being packed. Again we refused but now our pickup driver wouldn't go any further, instead we turned around and went back past the crippled bus and on to a small village. Here we waited again, our driver refusing to take us, every other driver refusing the money we offered, again we were stuck. Eventually another minivan turned up to take us the final 2 and a half hours to Luang Prabang where we arrived at 11:30, over 20 hours after we set off on a 10 hour bus ride.

The thing is, in Laos this isn’t even uncommon, everyone you speak to has similar stories. My original plan to get from LP to Hanoi had been the bus (it takes 24 hours and is the most notorious route) so I splashed out and have just enjoyed a very comfortable, quick and straight forward flight.

Broken Down Bus

Broken Down Bus

Posted by seanio5 09:08 Archived in Laos Tagged bus thailand laos transport buses break_down Comments (1)

The Lao Jungle

Featuring zip lines, treehouses and gibbons

sunny 35 °C
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One of the things I'd been most looking forward to on my travels was the Gibbon Experience in Laos, a jungle trek with a difference. The main features are the zip lines which span huge parts of the jungle and the tree houses where you stay. In addition this is a really worthwhile environmental project - before the Gibbon Experience was set up 7 years ago this jungle in Bokeo province was awash with illegal logging and poaching threatening the rare Gibbon monkeys and other wildlife. Unfortunately other parts of Laos are still troubled by these threats but at least here the former poachers and loggers are now earning more money in a sustainable way through eco tourism.

From Hauy Xai it was a 2 hour journey in the back of a pickup, the second half along the bumpiest dirt track I've ever experienced. In my group of 8 were Kiwi Mark, the 4 Kiwi girls from yesterdays bus ride, Anna, Jerri, Sophie and Nicola, plus Duncan and Faye, a couple from London who are on their honeymoon. Turns out they both work in TV back in UK, honestly you're in the jungle on the other side of the world and still can't get away from work! It was a really good group and everyone got along fantastically which was good seen as we'd spend every minute of the next 3 days and 2 nights together.
Zip line 2

Zip line 2


We set off trekking from the local village (about 10 bamboo huts) to the first stop, small waterfall for swimming, with a zip line straight into the middle of the water. Great for freshening up after the trek but just a prelude to the main thing. We were given our harnesses and a very short safety briefing by our guide Nou. He then zipped away on the first line and left us to follow him. Nervously double checking harnesses and carabiners were attached each of us set off. From where you set off you can only see about 50 meters of the zip line before it is obscured by trees. As you zip along building up speed and emerge from the canopy a huge valley opens up below you, the tree tops disappear further and further beneath you and you feel like you are flying above the jungle. I don't think words can really do justice to how amazing the experience is so I have some awsome video to help demonstrate, unfortunately I can't upload them here so you'll have to look at someone elses videos on youtube (http://youtu.be/szaCflf2kFA).

The tree house for our first night was equally impressive, built into the top of a 200ft high tree and only accessible by zip line it was an amazing place to spend the night.The treehouse bathroom - nothing between you and nature when showering

The treehouse bathroom - nothing between you and nature when showering

Inside our treehouse

Inside our treehouse

The only slight downer was the leaches which we discovered as we took our boot off. I'd never seen a leach in real life before, they are kind of like little worms which grab onto you as you walk past then start sucking your blood and getting bigger and bigger the fuller they get. I thought I'd been well covered up but obviously not well enough, luckily it doesn't hurt at all, but the bleeding does continue for some time after you pull/burn them off.Leach bites

Leach bites

The second day involved a 4 hour trek from tree house 4 (the furthest away of all the tree houses) back to number 5 for lunch. A couple of hours rest here were interrupted by some sudden and huge gusts of wind which made the tree house sway violently way up in the jungle canopy. Luckily it didn't last long and we moved on to the spectacular four storey tree house 1 which was to be our home for the second night. The long and arduous walks, the sweat, insects, leaches, the heights etc would probably put a lot of people off doing this but honestly it just makes the experience all the more worthwhile, it feels like such a sense of achievement after getting through it and it makes the zip lining so much more rewarding. Zip Line

Zip Line

Leaving treehouse by zipline

Leaving treehouse by zipline

The second night was all going so well at first. The luxurious tree house was complete with dining table which we all sat around for dinner which was zipped in by Nou from a nearby kitchen hut. We drank local Lao wine and ate Lao sweets. As it goes dark so early we started retiring to bed at about 21:00. The mosquito nets cover two mattresses so I was sharing with Mark. He was the first to bed as the rest of us where still downstairs, suddenly he let out a horrible cry which made everyone sit up. Then came more blood curdling moans from him, we all called up asking what it was, maybe a huge spider, another leach? Just at that moment with perfect horror movie timing the solar power supplying the lights in the tree house ran out leaving us in total darkness (literally the darkest darkness I've ever experienced, so dark you can't even see your hand in front of your face). Several horrible moments passed as torches were switched on to reveal that the cause of Marks cries where rats in our bed, and not just that, they had pissed and pooed all over the sheets and pillows.

You probably gathered from my previous blog that I'm not a big fan of spiders, but rats running around as you sleep are 10 times worse for me. With no chance of sleeping in our bed which potentially still had rats inside, myself and Mark had to share with the girls. Under the thick mosquito nets with three people in close proximity the heat was almost unbearable, but at least no rats got in.
Sunset in the jungle

Sunset in the jungle

The final morning after a horribly sleepless night we were up at 05:00 to try and catch a sight of a gibbon. They start signing at about 05:30 and it only lasts for 20 minutes and this is the only time you might catch a glimpse, the singing is more like an alarm echoing through the trees and its quite incredible to hear. So we zipped out of the tree house, ran up an almighty hill, my heart beating like a bass drum from the exertion so early in the morning, but with the signing of the gibbons getting louder all the time to spare us on. We saw branches sway and a flicker of blackness through a distant tree and then the gibbons were gone. Still, just that fleeting glimpse of such a rare animal in its natural environment was amazing to experience.

More zip lining followed before the walk back to the village where we were greeted by the local children. The Gibbon Experience certainly lived up to the hype and is going down as one of the greatest experiences of my life so far.
Me returning to the village at the end of The Gibbon Experience

Me returning to the village at the end of The Gibbon Experience


Local kids in the village

Local kids in the village

Posted by seanio5 03:14 Archived in Laos Tagged trees monkeys jungle gibbon canopy treehouse zipline gibbon_experience tree_house zip_line leach Comments (0)

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