31 October 2011

Backpacker Paradise [Sihanoukville, Cambodia]

Sihanoukville is a perfect beach destination. With white sand, crystal clear water and small islands dotted around the bay, you can't help but feel relaxed. Especially when the whole place (or at least the beach we visited) seems to be designed with backpackers in mind. Basically a great atmosphere, good music, cheap food and cheap beer.

We decided to only stay the one day, even though I could see myself staying for a week or more. But we had our relaxing days on the beach in Vietnam, and I am sure there will be plenty more to come in Thailand. Unfortunately time is tight, so we had to keep moving.

29 October 2011

Bone Pagoda [Phnom Penh, Cambodia]

I'm wondering how best to describe Phnom Penh, but only one word comes to mind; chaos! But a cool, friendly kind of chaos. It has a rich history and culture that covers the city in almost every direction you look. It is full of smiling faces and friendly people. Street markets and old woman with small stalls fill the side-streets; the smells and sounds of locals going about their daily lives fills the streets.

Cambodia is an intense country. Within a couple of hours of crossing the border we had to take a ferry across the Mekong. A small van pulled up beside us at the ferry port and was immediately swamped by people selling all kinds of food. I'm talking twenty or more people shoving bulging plastic bags and bunches of fruit through every available window. I think the only reason we didn't receive the same treatment was that we were sitting high up in a bus with windows that didn't open. Soon afterward there were three or four kids swimming in the ferry port (Health and Safety FTW!) completely naked. One jumps out and starts peeing everywhere. Nice.

28 October 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop [Mekong Delta, Vietnam]

The Mekong Delta. The giver of life... or so the tourists agents like to tell you. It is an interesting part of the world, full of all kinds of people, different cultures, and massive boats fully laden with goods. The locals here have a unique lifestyle, and experiencing it is a nice way to spend couple of days while in Vietnam. Especially if you have a nice boat to relax on.

As I mentioned in my last post, Julia and I decided to do an organised two day tour of the Mekong. The first day was an almost complete disappointment, and reminded me why I avoid these tours at all cost. I felt totally rushed, always on a schedule, and that I was always pushed in to buying or tipping or spending money that I didn't really want to. In saying that, it was quite interesting, and there is no way I could have seen as much as we did in the time we did by ourselves.

26 October 2011

Instruments of Torture [Saigon, Vietnam]

Saigon (or Ho Chi Mihn City as it is less commonly known) is like Hanoi on steroids. Think huge buildings, millions of people, cars, trucks and more scooters I have ever seen (all with horns blaring!). The lights, sounds and smells all fight for your attention (along with the hundreds of motorbike taxi drivers that litter the streets); it is a sensory overload. There is only one word that can accurately describe the feeling in this city; chaos.

Julia and I arrived to Saigon on different buses, but soon met up and went about finding a room for the night. There was the normal large number of touts standing around, but no one really wanted to bargain with me. In the end having to take a room for an excessive US$8/night. The 'hotel' was more like someones home. Actually, it was someones home; full of clutter, people and a baby. One morning when I came down early I found an old woman and the baby asleep on the floor. The rest of the day they spent their time on the couch watching Vietnamese daytime TV. They supplemented their hotel income by selling noodles from the front step... These, among other things, made it one of the more interesting places I have stayed in.

22 October 2011

Heaven on Earth [Mui Ne, Vietnam]

I ended up staying in Mui Ne a lot longer than I probably should have. The reason; This place is heaven on earth. It has its own micro-climate, so while the weather in the rest of Vietnam has been very hit-and-miss, Mui Ne has constant sunny blue skies. The coastline is a huge expanse of beautiful white sand and (mostly) clear waters, and is a world-famous location for wind-surfing and kite-boarding. Paradise.

20 October 2011

The Happiest Buddha in the World [Dalat, Vietnam]

The weather patterns in Dalat leave an even shorter opening for sunshine than Nha Trang! At least there you had the morning to enjoy before the thunder clouds roll in. In Dalat it rains in the morning, there is a couple of hours of early afternoon sunshine, then back to rain. But the rain didn't put me off. A lot of travelers I have met put Dalat up there on the Vietnam to-do list, so I had to get out and explore.

In some parts of Dalat it is easy to believe you are somewhere in Europe. The French used this small highland town as their get-away from Saigon, building plenty of European style houses and churches. There even a small Eiffel Tower-ish construction in the center of town (or maybe it was just a radio tower) and a Moulin Rouge. This combines with the beautiful green landscape, colorful gardens and a picturesque lake makes for a perfect spot to spend a few days. I was lucky to catch Simon and Yona for a night before they moved on to Saigon. We had a quick catch up and they introduced me to the most epic bakery of all time! (OK, maybe slight exaggeration, but it was so so good!).

18 October 2011

Funky Monkey [Nha Trang, Vietnam]

Nha Trang; a big city with a nice-ish beach. On the whole, a bit of a disappointment. Nha Trang is known as the beach resort town in Vietnam, and one of the top beach destinations in the world. I'm not sure how it got that reputation. To be honest I thought Hoi An was nicer... But I did enjoy spending a couple of days relaxing in the sun, so it's not all bad.

In Hoi An I parted ways with Simon and Yona. They were heading inland to the mountains, and I was making my way down the coast. We planned to meet up again in Dalat in a few days and I jumped on my overnight bus. Which, again, would have been perfect had it not been for the douche bag driver sitting on the horn the whole night.

15 October 2011

This could get messy [Hoi An, Vietnam]

Continuing south with Yona and Simon, we hit Hoi An. A nice beach-side city with a beautiful old town.

The first day was one of the best days I have had in a while. The weather was absolutely perfect; hot and hardly a cloud in the sky. We grabbed a bicycle and rode down to the beach. The place was deserted, just us, a couple of Vietnamese fishing boats, and kilometers of beautiful coastline. We lay on the white sand, swam in the sea for hours, and had a fresh seafood lunch at one of the beach side restaurants. It was bliss.

14 October 2011

The Temple of Doom [Hue, Vietnam]

A bus swerving all over the road, and a driver sitting on the horn are two conditions which generally do not encourage restful sleep. So when I arrived in Hue all I wanted to do was get a couple of hours of decent shut-eye. But my first mission was to meet up with Yona and Simon, who were coming off an overnight bus also. They had picked up a German girl named Esther, so our threesome became four.

The highlight of my time in Hue was Esther and I hiring a scooter and driving out into the wilderness to find ancient tombs. It was very Indiana-Jones-esque... The thick forests full of exotic plants, the locals with strange outfits staring as you pass, strange animals creeping through the wilderness, and the massive stone tombs. We kind of stumbled upon the tomb of Khai Dinh, and I am really glad we did. It was AMAZING! Really intricate stone carvings, massive columns, and huge stone staircases leading up toward the tomb. It was like nothing I have ever seen. We also visited the tomb of Minh Mang, which was less impressive, but had beautiful, peaceful surroundings.

13 October 2011

Holding on for dear life [Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam]

Sitting on the side of the road at 5am in the Old District of Hanoi (off the overnight bus from Sapa), a couple of travelers and I were approached by a man trying to sell tours to Halong Bay. I was open to the idea, as I had been told that it costs about the same and is less hassle than doing it solo. But he obviously didn't know his audience; trying to sell luxury tours to backpackers. In the end a friend of his sold Victoria (a German cool girl I met on the bus) and I a relatively cheap 2 day/1 night tour for US$42. So by 8am that morning we were on a bus heading north.

The cruise itself was poorly organised, with average food, and they screwed you for every last penny. Mainly the drinks; charging ridiculous amounts, and even more as a 'service fee' if you brought your own (think US$20 for a bottle of wine). But you get what you pay for I guess. What was really amazing was the crew we had - everyone just clicked. We only had one night together but it was awesome. Everyone staying up for a big night on the boat, shotting vodka and sharing travel stories.

12 October 2011

Skinned Dog [Sapa, Vietnam]

Vietnam, Baby! After the shitty bus ride down from China, I crossed the border with no problems. Immediate observations: the English is much better, and the touts are much more persistent. I constantly had people coming up and trying to sell me bus tickets, taxis etc. And all seemed to be at heavily inflated prices. Hmmm...

The border town in Vietnam is Lao Cai. There is nothing special in this town at all. The main differences I noticed from China was the massive communist propaganda billboards, and the BREAD! Being an French colony, it seems the French left behind the secret of amazing bread. A welcome change coming from China. Oh, and within 30 minutes of arriving I saw a woman on the side of the road selling a skinned and gutted dog, head still on. Nice...

10 October 2011

China; the good, the bad, and the just plain hilarious

Having spent the last six weeks in the country, I decided I would write a final post on China. This is just me having a rant, giving you my opinion, observations etc, so feel free to skip it.

9 October 2011

Got Rice? [Yuan Yang, China]

24 hours straight travel is not something that really phases me any more. So when the opportunity came up to get to the south of Yunnan in one shot I took it. First an overnight bus from Shangri-La to Kunming, followed by 2.5 hours on public transport between bus stations (not a fan of the Kunming transport system BTW), then (just making it with 5 minutes to spare) on another 6 hour bus to YuanYang.

There was actually a funny story on the overnight bus from Shangri-La. Khen and Ore both had tickets for the same bus... or so they thought. When they got on the bus they found people in their beds. Double checking their tickets they found that the agent had made a mistake and booked for the following night. Guts. The bus was pulling out and they were frantically trying to get off, so we exchanged a quick goodbye. It wasn't until the following morning when exiting the bus that I heard a familiar 'Good Morning'. It was Ore! Apparently there was two free beds and the driver let them stay on. Win!

8 October 2011

Do Not Harm The Buddhas [Shangri-La, China]

How would you feel if the Government decided to change the name of your home town, in a cheap effort to drum up some tourism. That is what happened to Shangri-La, or ZhongDian as it was known up until 10 years ago. The powers that be decided to rename it after a place mentioned in an British novelists book (Lost Horizon). The thing is; it worked! Tourists flock here. If someone did that to little 'ol Gisborne/G-town/G-troit/Gizzy, I think I'd be pretty pissed.

Shangri-La sits at 3,400m above sea level. Yes, that is almost the height of Mount Cook, New Zealands highest mountain. Another interesting fact; Shangri-La is heavily Tibetan. It actually used to be a part of Tibet, and a lot of the culture, architecture and people remain.

Stressing Balls [Tiger Leaping Gorge, China]

Tiger Leaping Gorge has gone from an old goat track that only the most 'off the beaten path' travelers attempt, to a top five on most peoples China 'to do' list. Surprisingly though, the Chinese Government have not yet over tourist-ified it. Well, they have built a big highway from start to end, but in places you actually still walk on grass/dirt/rock, rather than stone and concrete paths. And they charge a reasonable Y50 to enter. Let's hope it stays that way.

I organised a bus in Lijiang through a near-by hostel. It actually turned out really well, as I met a whole bunch of cool people that I ended up hanging out with for the next few days. But there was an interesting story about the bus ride... We stopped at a hostel located at the beginning of the gorge. The driver indicated this was the spot where we could leave our big bags (and just take our day packs). While inside the hostel the bus driver just took off, leaving me and three other guys in the hostel. He made no indication at all that this was the start point of the trek, or that he would be leaving. The other three were a little more cautious than I, and managed to grab their day packs. I waited for about 10 minutes for him to return before calling the hostel. They called the driver, who said that he was not going to come back, and that he would leave my bag at the hostel located at the end of the trek. That bag contained my camera, about Y1,000 in cash, and my PASSPORT! I was stressing balls.

5 October 2011

Breakin' The Law! [Lijiang, China]

The cobble streets of the Lijiang old town form a narrow maze, containing cute shops selling everything your tourist heart desires. Yak meat, hand made shawls, jewellery and other local food. These are separated by thin canals which divide the old town, skirted by weeping willows and bright flowers. I'm doing my best to paint a picture here, and not really sure how well I'm doing... How about a couple of photos instead?

4 October 2011

Harvest Season [Dali, China]

Dali was my first real Yunnan experience. Colourfully dressed people belonging to minority religions are all over, old guys smoking MASSIVE pipes, the city small and intimate, small canals, overhanging tress, surrounded by massive mountains and a beautiful lake. Although I got the feeling that a lot of the people were dressed up for the tourists, it was still quite cool.

Slowly climbing from Kunming, Dali is at about 2000m above sea level. The difference in temperature was very welcome. Being a relatively small place, CouchSurf hosts are few and far between. I ended up staying in Five Elements Hostel, just outside the old town. It was a really nice place, and extremely cheap. In fact it is the cheapest accommodation I have stayed in to date - at Y20/night (about €2).
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