Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dog days of Samet

Hello again from Koh Samet. This may be the first time I've written two posts from the same location. I'm still here because I love it here basically. Its been the perfect place to relax and recharge. I'm currently sitting at Tok's, a little bar/restaurant on the beach. My friends and I have most of our meals and drinks here because it's cheap, clean, and the staff is very friendly. In fact we've gotten to know pretty much all of the staff over the last couple weeks and they'll all come over to say hi and chat for a couple minutes at various points in the day. Often at night we'll play cards with some of them at 10 baht per hand. That's only roughly 30 Canadian cents, so we're not exactly breaking the bank if we have an unlucky evening. Its been great having a bit of a homebase that's familiar and comfortable. We even have a dog, Tam, who comes and sits with us most of the time. It may have something to do with the fact that we feed her, but she's a lovely dog. Kind of looks like a smaller version of the littlest hobo dog. I haven't pet a single dog since I've been to Asia since most of them are homeless and can carry ticks, diseases, scabies, etc. But this one's clean and I have no problems giving her a scratch behind the ears. Yes, I'm stretching for material.
Flo, our Austrian friend took off after a week as he had to head back home. Today, Keith and Jilly, the British couple, leave for Laos so I'll be back on my own again. We haven't been completely immobile though. Keith, Jilly, and I went to Koh Chang last weekend to see something a little different. It's a few hours south from here. None of us were big fans of it as the island as it was pretty empty and it was more expensive. Luckily I managed to find a cheapish bungalow that hung over the beach. The selling point was the hammock on the balcony, which I took full advantage of for 3 days. I'd read or just enjoy the roar of the waves there for hours at a time. The weather was much rainier and the current was too strong to go swimming in unfortunately. So after 3 days, we all decided to come back to Samet where we knew the weather was better and the beach much prettier. So I no longer have a hammock with a view, just a small bamboo hut with a bed, a fan, and a mosquito net. Luckily the shared bathroom isn't too far off.
I don't have much more to say other than life is grand here, and I'm feeling re-energized. This break was just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately I go back to Bangkok this weekend, then fly back to London next Tuesday. Only 1 week left in Asia! It's weird knowing this portion of my trip is coming to an end, but I'm trying to enjoy every minute of it while it lasts. And now that I have my energy back, I'll try to make the most of it when I get back to Europe, as I'll have a month to explore. One thing I'm looking forward to is London's Canada day celebration. Don't ask me why, but every year they have a big celebration in Trafalgar square. It's sponsored by Molson, so if nothing else I can have my first taste of Canadian beer in ages!
I'll end with thanking everybody who took up my request to email me from my last post. They were much appreciated. I'd name all of you, but it would take too much time to write both your names...
Well that's it for now... thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Koh Habitation

I ended up spending a week in Vang Vien. I wasn't particularly fond of the place, but I had come down with some sort of illness that just zapped all my energy, so I didn't really feel like moving too much. I've been getting sick more often in the last couple months than normal. One person I talked to attributed this to it being the rainy season now. I've been in mountainous regions since it started, and apparently when it rains, all the shit (literal and figurative) rolls down the mountains, making disease a lot more common. Before I got sick though I tried the tubing, which is what the town is famous for. I apparently didn't do it right, as I floated past the first few bars that were filled with people, drinking games, and loud music. I figured the party would continue down the river, but quickly realised that most people don't actually end up moving past the first few bars. Instead after about 30 minutes of floating in my innertube, I pulled up to one bar for some refreshments that was nearly deserted. There was one group of people from Oakland, so I got asked about 6 different times if I was from there (I have my Oakland A's ball cap on this trip). After an hour or so, it was getting late, so I shoved off and continued down the river. The ride down the river back into town is about 2 and a half hours, and very relaxing. It's nice to be surrounded by the mountain and just float on the river as the sun shines down, literally just going with the flow. The only problems arose at a couple different shallow parts of the river where I had to sit a lot higher on the tube to avoid catching my ass on the rocks. The sun was going down as I pulled up to the spot where you're supposed to get out. What struck me was how few people had actually gone down the river, as I said, most just go to the bars there and drink the day away, then take a tuk tuk back to town. Ah well, their loss. And I can't really complain about how quiet and serene the water was.
The rest of the week was mostly spent reading and watching movies, recovering from whatever it was that had taken my energy.
Eventually I left for Vientiane, the capital of Laos. My bus ride was, fortunately, much more comfortable than the previous bus ride. It was only half full, and had relatively ample leg room which I was grateful for. Vientiane's a nice city, and clearly has more money than elsewhere in Laos, as all the roads were well maintained, there were nice green spaces, and it was pretty clean. I stayed near the mekong river. I ended up having to switch guesthouses 3 different times as there were different problems with my first two rooms. Luckily I found a cheap and decent room. I walked around and explored Vientiane for a few days, but didn't get too rowdy at night as I was still recovering. I was also more or less just killing time until the 29th for my flight back to Bangkok. The reason for waiting until then was because I fly back to London on the 28th of this month, and I didn't want to get penalised for overstaying my 30 day visa. I had been considering going to a new country for my last month in Asia, but ultimately decided against it. Even though I was recovered from being sick, I was still tired. Not in a physical sense, but just wary. Constantly being on the move, living out of a bag, and dealing with all of the inevitable little hassles that pop up along the way have taken their toll on me. I must admit, I'm done exploring for now. I don't want to learn how to say thank you and hello in a new language; I can't be bothered to figure out the conversion rate for a new currency. I don't care how pretty the next temple is, I just don't want go see it. So I returned to Bangkok on the 29th. On the 30th I received my much appreciated bank card (thanks again mom!) and spent the next two days doing laundry and picking up some supplies. Then I caught a bus down to Ban Phe, where I caught the ferry over to Koh Samet, a small island covered in beaches. Samet is pretty small, only 7 km long. Its geographical location makes it receive less rain that most other places, which is a welcome respite from the rainy season. It is also only 3 hours from Bangkok, so it is the “it” destination for many metropolites looking to escape for the weekend. It is pretty quiet here during the week, but it got very busy during the weekend, with most guesthouses having “full” signs displayed. It was actually refreshing to see the Thais at play, since most places that tourists go to, it is only westerners being catered to by the locals. On the bus down here, I met a nice couple from England and a guy from Austria. We all get along very well, so we usually end up meeting up for a meal or drinks most evenings. It is great to have a bit of familiarity here. It has also been great to relax. Many people ask if I'm on vacation, and I hesitate to say yes. I know I'm fortunate as all hell to be on this trip and it is certainly not work, but at the same time, “vacation” implies a relaxing break. For the reason stated above and many others, I don't necessarily see this trip as a vacation, I just call it a trip. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade it for the world and I'm not complaining, I just don't think vacation is the right word. But now that I'm here on Samet, I'm taking a vacation from my trip. The most stressful part of my day is deciding if I want to swim or get a massage; choosing between Leo or Chang beer; picking out which book to read at the store. Unless I get itchy feet, I'm probably going to spend most of my last month here. After all, I still have a month in Europe once I go back, and I hope to regain some of the energy that propelled me when I started out. Unfortunately for you it probably won't make for an interesting post, but I'll do my best!

One last thing before I head off to read on the sand. I was having a conversation with one of my friends the other night about my blog and why I decided to write it. Basically it is so that I can keep everybody updated who wants to know, but don't have to write the same email update to 50 different people. However I've noticed a downside. The blog is a lot less interactive than the email route. It's just me talking at you, not a conversation between us. In other words, I'm pouting because I don't get enough emails from friends telling me about what's new with you, what I'm missing back home. So, if you've got a few minutes, drop me a line and let me know what's up. I miss you! I should point out that some people are in fairly regular contact with me, and I hope they know much I appreciate them. Anyways, that's all for now. I've got some sun to hide my pale figure from!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Get Laos

I ended up staying in Pai for another week after the last posting. The laidback lifestyle and carefree attitude of the locals made it very hard to move on. I made some good friends there, a combination of travellers and Thais, and just didn't want to leave. It's a small enough town that throughout the day different members of our little group would bump into eachother and gradually we'd all be together for a meal (often home cooked – a welcome change) and some drinks in the evening. You'll see a bamboo bridge in the pictures I took in Pai which leads across the river to where the majority of the bamboo bungalow guesthouses are. There were 5 similar bridges along the river. I'm glad I took it when I did, because that night there was a big rain storm and 4 of the bridges, including the one pictured, ended up getting washed away in the river. About a week into my time there I was walking by a guesthouse and did a double-take into the lobby. There was a guy who looked just like my friend Gabby who had just left for home and given me his phone, but it couldn't have been him. I looked one more time and thought I was going crazy, but I called out his name anyways. Turns out it was him. He had changed his mind at the last minute and decided to stay an extra week. We were both shocked but happy to see eachother. He was there with another friend, Kareem, who also turned out to be really fun. The next day we all rented mopeds and went to explore some waterfalls and the surrounding scenery. The moped was a little tricky to get the hang of at first, which made me nervous on the highways, but once I got into it I ended up loving it. It was great to drive through the mountains with the wind rushing, beautiful scenery all around, lizards darting out of the way. Hell it was great to be driving period since it's been quite a long time. We stopped at one waterfall and enjoyed the view, then drove on for a while before getting a little lost and turning back. The next morning, Kareem and I decided to head out again and see some caves and hotsprings. We got to a tiny village when we were looking for the cave and by the confused look on the locals' face, it was pretty clear we weren't really on the right path. So we made our way to the hotsprings. We knew we were definitely at the hotsprings because there was a sign telling us so at the turnoff at the highway. We had to pay a toll to use the road to get there. I'm not sure what the toll money went to, but it sure as shit wasn't road maintenance. We took our scooters on this road for a solid fifteen minutes, combating mud, steep hills (our scooters were barely powerful enough to get up a couple of them...I needed a charging head start) and sharp turns – sometimes all three at once. We even had to cross a rickety looking bamboo bridge. At three different points one of us would stop and ask the other... should we turn around? We pressed on, but at one particularly muddy and steep hill, we stopped for the 4th time and decided to turn back since we were low on gas and clearly under-machined for this particular path. So we turned back and made way our back to town, plastered in mud. We didn't actually see any sites as planned, but it was still a great morning out on the road.
Unfortunately some drama was brewing with my other set of friends in Pai over some borrowed money that luckily I was not originally involved with. However I did become implicated when the borrower asked me for money in an effort to shift debts. I wisely declined and, sensing that things were only going to go downhill, decided that it was time to get out of dodge. So I left with Gabby and Kareem back for Chang Mai where we hung out for a couple days until Gabby actually did go home for good. Funnily enough I discovered that my Dutch friend Carin who I'd met way back in Cambodia and kept bumping into in Vietnam was in Chang Mai and it happened to be her birthday. I met up with her in the afternoon and we had some birthday cake. She said she was going to the Chang Mai cultural centre for dinner where they put on a dance exhibition from the different hill tribes surrounding the city. I agreed to join her and we had a great night. The food was good and plentiful. They brought out about 8 different dishes on a tray and as soon as any of them were even close to empty, a waiter would swoop in and refill it. We were both stuffed by the time the dancing started. I have to admit it was a little underwhelming. Most of the dancing here is in the hand movements, so it wasn't exactly a recreation of You Got Served up there. Nevertheless it was a great night with good food, and I'm glad I got to be there for her birthday since she was there for mine in Dalat. We had a nightcap and then said our final goodbyes (although we've thought we'd said a final goodbye to eachother about 4 other times) and I headed back to get a good night's sleep because I was leaving for Laos the next day.
So I left for Laos the next day. This was a long and winding 3 day journey consisting of one day on the bus and two on a boat. The first day was an 8-hour bus ride up to Chang Khong, a Thai town on the border with Laos. There I met a couple British guys over dinner and discovered we'd been in 4 or 5 of the same places at the same time, but never met eachother before then which was funny. Being a small border town, there wasn't much else to do besides go out for a couple beverages so that's just what we did. There we met Oh (“I'm Oh, ok?”), an extremely intoxicated local who apparently had just gotten back from spending a week with his wife which seemed like a good enough excuse to be on a 3 day bender on , if he was to believed, pretty much every drug known to man. And in his state, I believed him. Finally his sister came around and kind of corralled him away from us. She ended up sitting down with us and turned out to be very nice, although she inexplicably kept feeding her brother liquor at the other table. We turned it in early enough since we had to get up early the next morning, and we were also terrified to have to walk down the same road Oh would later be driving his motorcycle down.
So the next morning we had to get up early to take the 2 minute boat ride across the river to Laos and pay for our Visas. After paying a terrible exchange rate and waiting for an hour and a half for the group to get through, we finally got to hurry up and wait and two different spots where the tour company tried to sell us different crap at terrible rates. We finally got on the slow boat at noon and made our way up the river. The first day on the boat was a 7 hour ride. The boat held over 100 people, and while it was a little cramped, it was still a pretty good time, depending on what you made of it. I made some friends on the boat and enjoyed the beautiful scenery until it started raining and the tarps on the side of the boat had to come down. We finally got off in the late afternoon in the pouring rain in a tiny town that pretty much only exists because it is the stop between the border and Luang Prabang. Wanting a quiet night and a comfortable boat ride the next morning, I decided to refrain from the partying there.
The second day on the boat just seemed a lot longer. Everybody had grown pretty tired of the seats, which were basically old van seats, and you could just tell everybody was anxious to get there. I tried to enjoy the view as much as possible. Laos is riddled with mountains, so basically both days were spent floating down the river with lush green mountains surrounding us on all sides. Like most things here though, even this beauty had its ugly side. I saw three different dead human bodies floating in the river during my two days on the boat. A couple were tangled up in the rocks where the current had taken them and one just floated right on by us downstream as we went upstream. I found this pretty disturbing and asked some locals about it. The two most likely explanations were that it was either a fisherman who drowned or simply a villager whose family couldn't afford to bury him. The locals seemed amused at my concern. I also inadvertently provided my friends on the boat with a catchphrase that has stuck even a week later. People had been talking about seeing the bodies, some had seen them and some hadn't. I happened to be standing up talking to a few friends about something unrelated when the one body floated by in the background, so in shock I said “that's a dead body right there”. They took my shock for calmness and thought that was pretty funny. So now when anything out of the ordinary happens, somebody always says “that's a [insert what's happening] right there” in a calm, southern drawl. Most of them are British and for some reason they think I have a southern drawl.
Anyways, we finally got off the boat Friday evening in Luang Prabang and made our way to some guesthouses. I had a pretty quiet night, since I had once again lost my bank card a few days previous in Chang Mai. For those keeping count at home, that's two lost on this trip so far. The problem here is that the ATMs give you your cash back and then make you hit cancel in order to get your card back, as opposed to giving you your card, then cash. I was in a hurry to meet some people, so once I had my cash, I took off without thinking and without my card. Luckily I still have my Visa for cash advances, but unfortunately it can't be used at a machine, only in a bank. So I kept it quiet on Friday, waiting to take my money out the next morning. This is when I discovered the banks are closed in Laos on the weekends and I was up shits creek without a debit card. Luang Prabang has a huge number of money exchange places, and they all give embarrassingly bad rates, but I had no choice and exchanged the last of my Thai Bhat into the Laos Kip. This gave me the equivalent of roughly 7 dollars to live on for the weekend, so I knew it wasn't going to be a lively one. There are stands all over town that sell sandwiches for a dollar, so I'd wait until noon or 1 and buy one for lunch, then wait as long as my hunger would allow and go back and get another one in the evening. These and a bottle of water were pretty much all I could afford so I didn't go out much and explore in order to conserve my energy/hunger/thirst. I basically stayed in and watched movies on my computer and read. As you can imagine, these weren't exactly the most fun couple of days travelling. Finally Monday morning rolled around and I managed to get the money out of the bank. I bought myself a nice big breakfast to celebrate, and my spirits slowly returned. I rented a bike and explored the city a bit to see what I'd been missing. Luang Prabang is a valley that is, like everything else in Laos, surrounded by mountains. There is a temple at the top of a steep hill in the middle of the city that gives you a great view of the area. Yes, I forgot to bring my camera. It's a very quiet and pretty town, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also a couple of beautiful caves and waterfalls nearby that every tuk tuk driver you pass will kindly offer to take you to.
That night I also met up with my friends from the boat for a few drinks. There is a curfew in Luang Prabang that dictates that all the bars must close by 11:00 pm. There is only one place that is exempt from this, so as everybody leaves the bars after last call they are bombarded by tuk tuk drivers yelling “bowling!”. That's right, the afterparty spot in Luang Prabang is a 10-pin bowling alley. So you cram as many people into a tuk tuk as possible and take off to this 15-lane alley. I've only ever been 10-pin bowling once before, so I was pleased with myself when I came in second last.
My boat friends took off for Vang Vieng the next day, but I wanted to spend a couple more days in town to actually see it since I was still two days behind. While I enjoyed the scenery, I must say I didn't like Luang Prabang as much as some other people had said they did. I found people were trying to rip me off one way or another every time I turned around. Tuk tuk drivers would ask for way too much, street vendors would charge more for food than originally advertised, and in one case I bought some water at a corner store with a 50,000 Kip bill and the clerk tried the old trick of only giving me back change for a 20,000 (they look very similar), claiming that's what I gave her. I had to argue with her for a couple minutes to get it back, but I finally did since I know for a fact I looked to make sure. This general greedy attitude combined with my first couple days spent impoverished just didn't leave me with a great impression of the town. Finally ready to leave, I booked my bus ticket for Thursday morning. I paid the extra 5 dollars for the “VIP” bus figuring I'd want the extra comfort of air con and hopefully some extra space. I woke up Thursday morning a little under the weather but decided to trek on anyways, since I had the comforts of the VIP bus anyways. As soon as I got on the bus I knew I'd made a mistake and should have turned around right then but I didn't. The bus was so cramped. They had clearly adjusted the seats in order to put more in. The seat I was assigned was actually on an angle, which meant I had even less leg room than everybody else on the bus. There was literally less than a foot between the seat cushion and the seat in front of me. Murphy's law, the guy sitting next to me was the second tallest person on the bus. Guess who was the first. So basically I spent the entire ride sitting completely sideways with my legs in the aisle, unable to stretch them though because the guy next to me had to spread his knees well onto my side. The air conditioning turned out to be nothing more than a bit of warm air blowing from those little fan things above the seat. But seeing as how there were more seats than originally intended, guess whose seats weren't covered by any? It was probably the worst bus ride I've taken since I've been to SE Asia, and that's not an easy feat. The ride up was windy and bumpy as there are no highways, just a combination of twisting dirt, gravel, and occasional concrete roads through the highways. The scenery once again was beautiful, but I was in no mood to enjoy it.
So I arrived in Vang Vien Wednesday evening and spent the next day and a half recovering from my fever/bus ride. Vang Vien is a very small town that is best known for its tubing and partying. To say both is a bit redundant. I haven't done the tubing yet, but I will in the next couple days. Essentially you rent an old tractor tire here in town and they drive you about 5 km up the river and you float back down towards town. Along the way apparently are a few bars that you can float up to that have ziplines, rope swings, slides, and pretty much anything else you've ever been advised not to combine alcohol with. I think I'm gonna decline to participate in these things since pretty much every second person you see walking has a limp or cuts and scrapes from their adventures. I'll stick to floating and maybe a couple beers thank you very much.
I finally managed to get out yesterday to explore. I quickly learned it was the Rocket Festival. I assumed this was their translation for firework festival, but wasn't really sure. The last festival I'd been to was the water festival in Chiang Mai where everybody shoots as much water at you as possible. So you can understand my apprehension when I turned a corner and saw a dozen Laotian teens carrying oversized bottle rockets. Luckily nobody fired them at me. There were different processions of people carrying these rockets, singing, dancing, drumming, and drinking. One group invited me along and while I had no idea what they were singing or where we were going, I was having fun. It was enjoyable because they were just there having fun as opposed to my negative experiences in Luang Prabang with the locals. I was still curious what the festival was all about though. Finally we got down to the river where there were stages and food stalls set up. There were also 3 different ladder-like structures set up next to the water. One was about 8 feet, one was about 15, and one about 25. I quickly learned that these were the launching platforms for the rockets. These people were actually launching these fucking rockets! Not fireworks, but rockets. The stems on the bigger ones would be about 15 feet and the tube with the fuel would be about as big as your leg. I stayed as far back from the launch spot as possible. I couldn't believe it when they set these things off....they went anywhere between 500 and 2000 metres in the air. And the festival went on all day like this...just setting these things off, watching the tail of smoke disappear into the clouds (it was unfortunately overcast all day). I'll have to ask around what exactly the festival is celebrating, but I have a feeling it has to do with their independence. It's just an odd way to celebrate since more bombs have been dropped on Laos than any country in the world. I of course would have taken pictures of this, but had no clue that this was going on before leaving my guesthouse.
I did take a few pictures in the last few weeks though. Here are some pictures from Pai and here are some pictures from Chang Mai, along with the White temple we stopped at on the way to Chang Khong.
Sorry for the length of this post, I'll try not to wait so long for the next one!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Familiar Thais

I flew to Chiang Mai on the Monday and almost instantly remembered what I preferred about Thailand, but what I also disliked about it. I had a 6 hour layover in Bangkok and didn't feel like checking my bags and making my way into town for such a short time, so I just hung out at the airport, reading and watching movies. Even in the airport I was quickly reminded of just how prevalent prostitution is here. There were plenty of older western (that's the backpacker's official pc way of saying white) men with young girls who were either going on trips together or saying goodbye. I hate to assume it's all prostitution because I have met some lovely and legit western/thai couples, but sometimes when's there's such an age difference, it's hard not to assume. Anyways, I killed 6 long and expensive hours in the airport without much event. I ate at the mcdonald's there, which is the first time I've had rotten ronnies since getting to Asia. I had the samurai pork burger just to make it a little more authentic.
I finally arrived in Chiang Mai in the evening and went to my guesthouse. I had to argue with them to get a room because I had booked online last minute, and I guess they hadn't received the reservation yet. But I had an email confirmation from the booking website, and when I started demanding my deposit back, a room magically became available. Crisis averted, I unloaded my bags and went and explored a bit of the town, stopping at one of the many roadside massage places to work some of the travel stress out.
The main reason I was in Chiang Mai was for Songkran, the Thai new year. In theory it was supposed to start on Wednesday, but the festivities kicked off early as I learned the hard way on my way to meet up with Kim and Carissa at their guesthouse. Songkran is a water festival, and I believe the symbology is that the water is meant to wash away all the bad from the previous year and leave people with a clean start. I'm not sure how the festival looked when it was first celebrated, but now this pretty much means it's one big city-wide water fight for 4 days straight. So I was caught a little off guard on my walk when I got sprayed and splashed. The girls and I quickly bought some waterguns and decided to join the festivities. Songkran is such amazing fun. I felt like a kid again, spraying anybody and everybody with water as they passed by. That's the tricky part about Songkran – nobody is immune, so if you're outside, you're getting wet. It was such good stress relief too. As you could probably tell from recent posts, my nerves had been worked pretty thin in Vietnam. So spending 4 days blasting people in the face with a supersoaker was very therapeutic, and re-energizing. The second day was grey and rainy, but that didn't stop everybody from lining the streets once more and dousing eachother. I think I overdid it a bit because the following day I could feel my cold flaring back up, so I decided to lay low in order to not make it worse. Unfortunately this also meant I couldn't leave my room until after dark as to not get drenched again. So I went out on the last day and made the most of it, my clothes saturated within minutes. Chiang Mai has a big moat that runs in a big square around the old town. This is where the majority of the water ammunition comes from since they're not about to waste that much clean water. The downside to this is that the moat water in Chiang Mai makes the Rideau Canal water look potable. I bought a drink at one point during one day and within 1 minute of leaving the 7-11 I got sprayed, and undoubtedly got some water in my drink to. I chucked it and learned my lesson... only eat/drink indoors during songkran.
Once the sun went down though, the waterfights stopped and there was lots of celebrating... long streets were lined with vendor stalls selling food, clothes, and anything else you might need. The food in the street markets is the cheapest around, and often the tastiest, so we would go there as often as possible. Once the festival ended I spent the next few days just hanging out in Chiang Mai, exploring what the town had to offer. I also met back up with Gabriel, one of the two Americans I met when I had landed in Bangkok in January, and travelled to Phuket with. So we had a couple good nights out as well, catching eachother up on our travel stories. Unfortunately for him, he was at the end of his trip, so he had to head down to bangkok a couple days ago to fly home. He was kind enough to give me his thai cell phone, which has come in handy. I've been perfectly content without having a cell for the last 7 months, but it has definitely proved useful, trying to set up meeting times with friends I've made.
I finally said goodbye to Kim, Carissa, and Joanna (also from the volunteer program in Cambodia who met us in Chiang Mai). They were headed down to Bangkok as well to move on to other places, and I headed north on my own again. I haven't travelled on my own without friends being in the same city for more than a day or two since Cambodia, so it's a nice feeling.
I arrived in Pai two days ago and already love it here. It is a very small, laid back town. There aren't many attractions here, just a quiet respite from the hectic pace down south. Since being here I have not been offered a tuk tuk ride, drugs, or souvenirs once... you have no idea how nice of a break this is. I'm staying in a little bamboo hut, so I was surprised on my first morning to be woken up early, not by drunks, but by roosters crowing and birds chirping. It's messing with my head man! It's very much a hippie town, and it turns out you need to be careful. Not in the sense that you might get mugged, because I've never felt safer on this continent. Let's just say you have to be very cautious when ordering food with mushrooms in the ingredients. That aside, everybody here is very friendly and introduces themselves quickly. People actually smile here because they're happy, not because it will help their bottom line! So today's my third day here and I don't plan on leaving for a few more days yet. I'll be taking lots of pictures in the next few days hopefully, so check out my album a little later and there should be some new pics. I couldn't really get any photos of the craziness from Songkran due to the inherent danger of getting the camera soaked. Then how would I be able to take all these pictures, right? Here's a random video of it I found on Youtube if you want an idea of what it's like. Until next time, have a happy Easter!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A pleasant beginning of the day to you, Vietnam

I headed up to Dalat on the 29th, which I soon realised was poor planning on my part. The 29th was my birthday and the prospect of spending 8 hours of it on the bus was not appealing. It turned out to be the best bus ride I've had since arriving in Asia as the seats were comfortable and I actually had leg room. So that was a pleasant surprise. I arrived in the evening to a less pleasant surprise. Dalat was friggin cold! It's up in the mountains, which means the temperature actually dips beneath 10 degrees at night. I know that sounds kinda whiny to some of my Canadian friends still dealing with snow, but when you're used to lows of 35 (read: neener neener neener), 10 is a shock to the system! Luckily I had kept some warm clothes from Europe, and lugging the heavy hoodie and jeans around in my pack for 3 months finally paid off. Carin had left for Dalat the night before, so we ended up meeting up for dinner and she was kind enough to buy me a birthday beer. It was a much more subdued birthday than in previous years, but when I think of all the partying I've been doing on this trip, it's just one more day anyways. The following day I did the easy rider tour of the Dalat country side. This is where a bike driver will take you around the hills and some of the small villages nearby. It turned out to be a great day, and an amazing experience. The views were breathtaking. I could tell something was different in the hills, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I climbed one of them for the view. There's pine trees there! That's how friggin cold it gets, there's pine trees! Anyways, we made lots of cool stops, including a temple, a waterfall, the aforementioned hike up the mountain, a coffee plantation, a rice wine factory, a cricket farm, a flower farm, a silk factory, a “crazy” house designed by an eccentric architect and a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting. My driver offered to take me to a dog factory, where they raise, slaughter, skin, and butcher dogs for their meat. As curious as I was, I think I made the right decision in declining. Dalat itself is an aesthetically impressive town. You can really tell the French spent some time here as French villas line the streets and hillsides – a few even still have some bullet holes in them from the war.
I'd had enough of the cold weather, so the following day I took another bus down to Nha Trang. The bus ride was only a few hours, but the views were just as impressive on the way down. We were in the clouds for a while, making visibility tricky at times. But the views were similar to the Amalfi coast bus ride, except instead of the Mediterranean to the right, it was gorgeous valleys and other mountains off in the distance.
Nha Trang was much warmer, which I was happy about. It's a beach down on the coast in the south central part of the country. The weather can be spotty, so you have to take advantage of the sun when you can. The beach itself is nice and very spread out, as opposed to the compressed beach in Sihanoukville. There's also fewer people bugging you to buy things on the beach. However, there are just as many in the streets. I must admit, I reached my breaking point for patience in Nha Trang. Normally I give a friendly no thank you to the touts and moto drivers, but it just gets so tiresome after a while, that it's impossible to stay polite. So now I either ignore them or give them grouchy grunts if they're lucky. One guy kept calling out to me “my friend my friend” but I just kept walking. So he jogged up to me to ask why I didn't want to talk to him. I told him I didn't know he was talking to me and he said “I said 'my friend'”. To which I replied that's why I didn't think he was talking to me, because he's not my friend. He then said “yes, I'm you're friend”, and I responded with “no you're not my friend. You're just another stranger trying to sell me overpriced shit that I don't need. You're the exact opposite of a friend”. Possibly too harsh, but it wears on you, having several dozen similar interaction day after day. The other thing that I must point out is that out of the 3 countries in Asia I've been to, the Vietnamese are the least friendly people from what I've seen. Most other backpackers seem to say the same thing...after having been in Cambodia, Thailand or Laos where people are generally laid back, the Vietnamese people just seem more aggressive. I get stared at constantly and many locals just blatantly point at laugh because of my beard/size combo. It's hard to explain if you haven't been here, but take my word for it...there's just a certain underlying hostility that's there. Not that this isn't a great country – I've been having a blast here. Certainly it's the most scenic I've seen so far. Just another aspect to deal with.
Anyways, back from my rant. I had fun in Nha Trang. Carin ended up making her way over the following day, so we went out for some drinks and made some new friends. We even found a shisha bar, which was a nice blast from the past. I spent my few days there relaxing on the beach when possible and taking in the sights.
After a few days I said my final sad goodbye to Carin and took the sleeper bus up to Danang. This was a less than enjoyable experience. The sleeper bus differs from regular overnight buses in that instead of seats, they have beds. I thought this was a great idea so that I wouldn't have to wrestle for leg room. Turns out they build those to Vietnamese specifications as well...the beds are tiny. I had to lie at an exact angle to have any sort of comfort. And I was on a top bunk in the middle of the bus, which meant that I was always dangerously close to falling off whenever the bus would take a sharp turn, which was quite frequent on the winding roads. There were tiny handle bars on either sides of the bunk, but not nearly enough to make me feel secure. I think I only got a couple hours of sleep, so when I arrived in Danang in the morning, I slept most of the day away. When I finally did get up in the afternoon and explored, I quickly discovered I hadn't been missing much. I was in a crappy part of town and there wasn't a whole lot to see or do. It took me three different restaurants before I finally managed to get somebody to serve me lunch instead of just laugh with other patrons about me. Clearly they don't get a lot of tourists in that area. The only reason I was really there was to catch a flight the next day anyways, so I holed up in my room for the rest of the day and just watched a few movies.
The following morning I got up very early to catch a flight up to Hanoi. When I got to the airport, I wasn't exactly thrilled to learn my flight had been delayed by 3 hours, but that's life on the run I suppose. I ended up meeting a couple cool people and hung out with them for a while. Once I finally arrived in Hanoi I made my way to my hostel where I met up with Kim and Carissa, two of my friends from Sihanoukville. We went out for drinks that night and caught eachother up on our travel stories. Another sign of my waning patience came on our walk to dinner. We were looking at the prices at one menu at a roadside eatery when a guy came up to me, poked me, and said “hello how are you” to me and then went back to his table, giggling with his friend. I kinda snapped and yelled “yeah fucking hilarious! You said hello to a big fat white guy with a beard! It's a barrel of monkeys!” I think it may be time to move on from Vietnam. Unfortunately the following morning I woke up with a bad cold. All of the buses and flights here are terribly over-air conditioned so going from extreme heat to extreme cold tends to wear on the body. So for the last few days I've just been lying low, recovering from the cold. I can't complain too much since this is my first time getting really sick (aside from the occasional Molson flu) since my bout of food poisoning in Italy. It's too bad since I really wanted to spend the time hanging out with Kim and Carissa, but I just haven't had the energy. They're heading to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for the Thai new year in a couple days, so I decided to meet up with them and make up for missing out here. So that's where I'm heading tomorrow. I'm looking forward to moving on, since I've heard Chiang Mai is beautiful, but I will miss Vietnam, despite all of my complaints. Like I said, aside from all the hassle, it's a nice country.
Here are some pictures from Dalat. I've reached the max capacity for my former Picassa account, so this is a new one if you're keeping track.
Just in case, here's the first account with all of my pictures up until Saigon.
And here's the account from Dalat and whatever else the future holds for me.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lalala Miss Saigon Lalala

From famine to feast! I've been pretty busy this past week so I may as well get right into it. As hard as it was to leave my friends in Sihanoukville, my visa was running out and it was time to see something new anyways. I did have one last trick up my sleeve though as I had told everybody that I was taking the night bus out on St Patrick's day, but I decided to delay the trip one last day and surprise everybody by coming out for the celebrations. I'm told I had a good time.
Finally, on the 18th, I left Cambodia. I rode the night bus to Ho Chi Minh City and got there around 10 the following morning. My first day there was mostly spent recovering from the long and cramped bus ride, but I did manage to finally get out in the evening and have some dinner (pho, of course). I met a fellow traveller and together we explored the streets a bit, checking out the night market and swapping travel stories.
I really didn't like Saigon at first. It's so damn big and dirty and busy. After two weeks of chilling on the beach, it was a shock to the system. The buildings here are all compacted togther. They're all really skinny, but tall. It's not uncommon to have to scale at least 4 flights of stairs to eat at a restaurant or get to your hotel room. Also, the traffic is nuts. I thought Phnom Penh was bad, but this is 10 times worse. There are 9 million people who live here and something like 4 million motor bikes alone. Crossing the street requires full concentration, some skillful dodging, and a change of underwear. I must admit though, after a couple days the city has grown on me.
When I returned to my room that first night I had an email from my partner in crime and good friend Carin that I had met a few weeks previous in Sihanoukville. She happened to be in Saigon as well, so we agreed to meet up the following day. After some lunch (pho, of course), we headed over to the War Remnants Museum, which documents the Vietnam war (or as they call it, the American war – makes sense since every war they've fought is technically the Vietnam war, and vise versa). This museum had a lot of interesting exhibits and displays, but I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by how one-sided it was. Obviously the Vietnamese aren't going to have a lot of nice things to say about the American army, but from reading their pictures and texts, you wouldn't even know the Vietnamese soldiers carried guns. The most affective display was that of the victims of agent orange. Its effects are still being felt today by kids born in the areas that were sprayed with the chemicals. I've seen plenty of people with severe disfigurements in the streets that were caused by it, and it is heartbreaking. I also picked up my first souvenir of my entire trip at the museum. I bought a zippo that (so they told me) at one time belonged to a Marine fighting in Khe San. Most of them had inscriptions on the back, with quotes about peace or victory, etc. I decided to pick the one with the most eloquent poem:


The following day Carin and I did a walking tour of the city based on her lonely planet book. This was a great time. We walked to a giant indoor market, the museum of art (closed when we showed up), an outdoor market where I picked up some much needed soap and zippo fluid, stopped for a coffee in a cafe, walked along the fancy commercial district, checked out the opera house, went into the Ho Chi Minh city museum and sat in a park where we saw a woman squat at a tree 100 metres from us and relieve herself. There were a few more things on the tour that the book recommended, but by that point we were wiped. I was soaked in sweat due to the oppressive humidity and ready to call it quits, so we headed back for some late lunch.
The next day I did a tour of the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. The temple was beautiful and we were allowed in to watch their prayer ceremony which was quiet but impressive. After this we headed to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong would hide out during the war. There were close to 1000 km of these tunnels in the network during the war. These tunnels are tiny. The guerrillas would engage the Americans in a battle, and then when they would get close, they would disappear into the tunnels that were nearly impossible to penetrate. They expanded one small section of the tunnels so that tourists could go through them. The average sized person has to crouch and hunch in order to fit inside them. I had to crawl, and even then I barely fit. This, combined with my mild claustrophobia meant that I took the first exit possible, only 15 metres or so from the entrance. It felt like a mile. When I got out, I was breathing heavy and very near a panic attack. I walked to the end to wait for the rest of the group to exit. My ego took a bit of a bruising when the third person to come out was a 7 year old girl eating an ice cream cone. One awkward moment occurred on the bus ride home. There was a German hippie couple that kept going on about the “American imperialists” and every time our tour guide said anything about how the American forces treated the Vietnamese, they'd nod and say something about how this reflected their superiority complex or whatever. Now, I'm by no means an American-apologist (despite this being the second time in one post), but I just got so fed up with them implying that all Americans were automatically bad that I finally said “yeah, it must be great coming from a country with no recent history of war crimes”. Needless to say our conversations were limited after that. That night it poured rain and the street we were having dinner on flooded. We had to wade through nearly a foot of water to cross the street, all the while dodging more motorbikes.
On Thursday Carin and I did a 3 day tour of the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was on an island where the locals specialize in making honey related products, so we sat and had some traditional honey tea and honey-based snacks. We also got to pose for photos with a python for no apparent reason. After that, we walked through the island for a while and then stopped to have some fresh fruit where we were serenaded with traditional Vietnamese songs by the local women. After that we got in a canoe and were taken down a canal until we stopped at another island where we saw how local coconut candy was made and were given lots of free samples. Next stop was lunch and then it was back in the boat. After some more boating and busing, it was time to stop for the night. We had the option of staying at a hotel or a homestay with a Vietnamese family. Carin and I, along with an Aussie man opted for the homestay. I'm glad we did because it was a good experience and our host, Thuy, was great. Thuy showed up on his motorbike and said his friend was on his way with another one to take us to the boat. The aussie and Carin both kinda bluntly refused to ride the motorbike, so we ended up waiting around for a taxi. When we got dropped off at the boat, Thuy even apologetically tried to pay for the cab, but we eventually persuaded him to allow us to pay. Then it was another 20 minutes by boat in the dark, which was pretty cool. They provided us with a local meal that was more or less fresh fish spring rolls that we assembled ourselves. Dinner was great, and afterwords we got into the drinks. Colin, the aussie, had picked up some coconut whiskey earlier in the day so he was sharing shots of that. Our host, wanting to return the favour gave his 10 year old daughter some cash and she returned 10 minutes later with a big bottle of rice whiskey. Where else in the world can a 10 year old run out and buy booze? I knew the night was going to go downhill, I just had no idea how quickly or how far down. Carin was smart and went to bed early, knowing we had to be up very early the next morning. I wasn't in the particular mood to make it a full night, but who am I to turn down free local drinks? It's a cultural experience! I just couldn't believe how often they kept pouring the shots. So every 10 minutes or so, it was moh hai bah, yo! Which over here is one two three cheers. Thuy had lots of interesting stuff to say and Colin was alright at first, but as the night went on, he became more obnoxious. For whatever reason, he felt he needed to talk like a caveman instead of using regular English, even when he was just talking to me. For example, instead of saying “I like this rice whiskey”, he would say “me like” and point. Uh...dude, I speak English too. Finally when the whiskey was running low, Thuy's mom started yelling at him for making so much noise, so we decided to call it a night. Well I decided to. Colin decided to make an ass out of himself. First, he stepped up to relieve himself in the river. He lost his footing, tumbled down the hill and fell into the river. I've inherited a certain family member's predisposition for laughing at somebody falling, so I couldn't keep from bursting out. When I finally regained my composure, I went into my room and heard another crash. Turns out he face planted outside of his room, and apparently he fell a third time that night too. He had a cut above his eye in the morning. I also found out the next day that he had tried to pull his door open, when it turns out he needed to push it. Hence the door sitting off its hinges next to his room when I woke up. I felt pretty bad about this since he didn't seem to care that he had damaged this poor guy's property. Carin also said he sat outside of his room (which was next to hers but mercifully out of earshot of mine) talking to himself for at least an hour. Carin's not exactly one to disguise her displeasure, so there wasn't a whole lot of talking between the two of them for the rest of the day.
After a light but early breakfast (luckily Thuy wasn't bullshitting when he said rice whiskey doesn't give you a hangover, because I definitely should have had one), we took off in his boat and met up with the bigger tour boat that had all the people who stayed in the hotel. We said our goodbyes to Thuy and climbed on board the boat. The boat took us to the floating market where the locals trade from their boats. You can buy anything from meat to fruit to coffee and cigarettes. After this we went to a rice paper factory and blah blah blah it was boring as hell. Ditto for the rice husking mill we visited afterwards. No offence to people in the rice industry, it just wasn't that interesting. After that we had some lunch which turned out to be a fun experience. I was sitting with 3 nice New Zealanders and they got great service, and I got terrible service. They got their beers right away, but I had to ask for my coke 3 different times. When they finally brought it, it was diet coke, so I ended up waiting for just my drink for a thirsty 20 minutes when they already had their meals. And then when my food was finally brought out, it wasn't what I ordered, but we had to get going, so I just ate it. We were all laughing and trying to figure out what I did to deserve it. After that we made our long journey down the Mekong to our next hotel. It turns out we were staying at a floating hotel which is basically a big permanently docked boat. Everybody else we were with had paid extra to stay at the floating hotel, when we not only didn't pay, we weren't even told this was an option. Bonus I guess. We walked into town for some dinner and it's clear this part of Vietnam doesn't get as many tourists because I was getting gawked at from every direction. It's like big hairy white guys aren't common here or something. Finally I stopped at a delicious and cheap place for dinner (pho, of course). Afterwards I called it an early evening and put a good dent in my book, which I ended up finishing on the way home the next day. If you haven't read the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson (girl with the dragon tattoo, etc), I strongly suggest you pick the first one up. I've read all three in the last few weeks, and they're some of the best novels I've read in a long time.
The following morning we got up early again and took another boat to a fish farm. This is basically a houseboat with a giant net underneath it where they raise bass and red snapper. I gotta admit, this wasn't exactly thrilling either. Then we went to a small island village and visited their Islamic temple. Afterwards we had some free time to wander around the village which was nice to see. Every single child we passed seemed to know the drill, yelling hello at us as we went by. After this we got back on the boat and made our way down the river back to our bus and took the long journey back to Saigon. If you're wondering why I keep switching between calling it Saigon and Ho Chi Minh, it's because it's called both here. It's officially HCMC, but because it was named after the communist leader back during the war, most inhabitants still call it Saigon. The communist Vietnamese call it HCMC, and the non-communists call it Saigon. All in all I enjoyed trip since it was nice to spend a few days cruising down the river, even if most of the attractions were a little lame.
When I got back to Saigon where I once again had internet connection, I was surprised to learn that Canada's got another election coming up. Also, when I first arrived in Saigon I was a little taken aback when I learned the government here blocks facebook. There are certain ways around it if you know what you're doing on a computer, but it's still weird to be confronted with that kind of censorship when you're used to the freedoms that come with a democratic country like Canada.
Tomorrow I'll finally be leaving the big city and heading to Da Lat, a smaller mountain several hours north of here. I'm looking forward to getting away from the hustle and bustle.
I'd like to end by giving a couple shout outs to two important parties I've missed in this past week. The first is the birthday party with Matt and J. Sorry I couldn't celebrate with you guys this year, but that just means we'll have to go big to make up for it when I get back. Happy birthday to both of you!
The second is my dad's surprise retirement party. It's already happened, so don't worry – I'm not ruining the surprise. I've told him this already but missing this hurt more than missing Christmas. In order to make up for it, I recorded a video message which was apparently well received, so I'm glad for that at least. It's kinda sappy so I won't post it here. Dad, congrats once more. You've more than earned it, and I'm so proud of you. You'll have to take up golf or something to pass the time. We will also have to celebrate upon my return to make up for it. Also, big thanks Vicki for recording dad watching the video!
And finally, pictures. Yes, I actually took some. Here are pics of Saigon, the temple, and the tunnels. And here are some pics of the Mekong Delta tour.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sand Trapped

 I'm still down in Sihanoukville, where I've been a beach bum for the last two weeks.  It's a very relaxed town, as far as SE Asia goes anyways. There is still the inevitable constant hassle from tuk tuk drivers on the road. The main beaches are even worse. Kids walk up and down selling bracelets or collecting can. At night, they sell fireworks. Girls who are slightly older walk around with trays of fruit on their head. Then the older women either try to shill foot massages or walk around with a grill, selling lobster or squid. These are tied by string to a stick that balances on their shoulder, with a bowl on the other end containing supplies – it looks like a big tasty scale of justice to give you an idea. The older guys try to sell sunglasses. And every one of them has stories of how business is bad. In the time it took to type this convoluted paragraph, I said “no thank you” three separate times. Yes, this is being written on the beach.
Ah well, that's a small price to pay to be in paradise. Sihanoukville has several different beaches, all within 10 minutes of eachother. The cheapest way to get around is by motorbike. So, in continuing with the give-my-mom-a-heart-attack theme that has been my trip to Asia, I've ridden my first motorcycle! Luckily the drivers, like everybody else here, are more relaxed than their Phnom Penh counterparts. Sihanouvkille has a similar feel to Jamaica. Those who know my feelings on Jamaica will understand how much of a compliment this is. The main beach – Serendipity beach – is kind of like a backpacker's Negril.
At the end of the long day in Phnom Penh I'd described in my previous post, the three of us went out for dinner with Kim, another girl staying in our guesthouse. There I found out she was heading down to Sihanoukville to volunteer for a program that focuses on painting with kids, as a way to keep them off the streets/beaches. We've met up a few times and I've gotten to know the people at the Centre, so it's nice to have a group of people to meet up with every couple nights and hang out.
Friday was a little tense with the Tsunami happening in Japan. We were never in any real danger, but everybody seemed to have at least one eye on the waves as we dined on the beach. The water did actually come in a couple feet further than it normally does, but that was about it. The bigger excitement came at around 2 in the morning when I was falling asleep. Outside my open window I heard a bit of a scuffle, and then a guy yelling “you stole my wallet! Give me my fucking wallet!”. It didn't take too long to figure out that this guy had hired a hooker with less than scrupulous morals. If you can't trust a Cambodian hooker, who can you trust? Since I could hear everything clearly anyway I decided to go outside for some air and watch the show. It turns out it was this 60ish year old American guy I had talked to a couple days ago, and a ladyboy being seperated by staff. She was claiming he hadn't paid her, he was claiming she stole his wallet. My favourite part was that he was getting angry at the guesthouse staff for not calling the police as he demanded. Uh dude...you illegally hired a prostitute (with testicles)... the police aren't gonna be too sympathetic. I don't think he realised how big a favour they were doing him. Ah well. I went back in around the time where he was saying she could keep his wallet but he wasn't giving her her shoes back. If I see him again I'll make sure to ask him how it turned out and let you know.
I've walked past a couple cinemas in the last couple weeks that are pretty much air conditioned rooms with big tv's in them and all sorts of pirated movies to watch. One sign also said they had video games, so when it started raining yesterday, I decided to cave. I went into one and played Call of Duty: Black ops for four hours straight. I gotta admit, this was awesome. I haven't played video games since I left, so it was a lot like being back at the apartment, just hanging out. I just wish I could have been playing with the guys, but I guess this is the next best thing for now. It's just not the same without Delage whining about screen-watching, or whatever his excuse is for getting destroyed.
I don't have much else to say about Sihanoukville since I've been reading on the beach all day and hanging out with friends most nights. So I'll end on an anecdote from Phnom Penh that I had completely forgotten to include in my previous post. Our tuk tuk driver on our busy day was a really nice guy, and on our way back from the killing fields, he leaned back and said he used to live in the neighbourhood we were in. He asked if we wanted to see his old house and we said yes. He took us into this little courtyard that had several tin huts. There were a bunch of kids playing in there and they just stopped when they saw us. This was clearly not a normal tourist stop, so they were pretty surprised to see a few white guys walk in. They came up to us, but I could tell some of them were scared of me, most likely due to my beard, especially this one boy wearing camouflage shorts and tshirt.. One little girl even came up to me and hit my leg and then ran away. We went into the hut and I was shocked. It couldn't have been more than 8 feet by 8 feet, and all that was in there was an elevated platform that took up 2/3 of the space for sleeping on. He said 8 people lived in there when he was there. Our audience of kids grew around us as we stood in the doorway and I could tell my beard was still the focus of attention. Wanting to disarm the situation, I tried to think of the most mature and adult way to handle it. So naturally, I made moose antlers with my hands, crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue at them. They loved this...after that, they were all laughing, trying to imitate me and trying to show me their various toys. My favourite part was when we got back in the tuk tuk and started to drive off, the little boy in camouflage was running after us, making antlers, sticking out his tongue and laughing.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Holiday in Cambodia

I know it's been a while since I wrote a new post, but to be honest, I didn't have much to write for a while. After I got back to Bangkok and Paul headed back home, I just felt like taking a bit of downtime, which I did.
When we last left off, we were getting ready to go out for Paul's birthday. It ended up being a great time out on Khao San road, but luckily it wasn't nearly late or as crazy as our previous adventures there. After Paul took off the following day, I was kind of scratching my head wondering what to and where to go next... it's a lot easier travelling in small groups than it is solo over here. Funnily enough that afternoon I went down to the lobby and bumped into a couple friends I'd made back in the hostel I had stayed at in Budapest in December. Small world. I ended up hanging out with them here and there for the next few days which was fun. I didn't really feel like doing much sightseeing, so I mostly stuck to walking around to the markets and different neighbourhoods near my hostel during the day. I decided it was time to move on to the next country, so I chose Cambodia. I had to get a photo taken for my visa, so I went in search of one of the many camera shops I had seen on my previous outings. Unfortunately none of them would take my picture, including the ones that said “passport and visa pictures” on their signage, so I ended up walking for over an hour until I found one. As you can imagine, walking around in 35 degree heat in muggy Bangkok for an hour did not lead to the most flattering photo. I wish I had a scanner to share this photo because I basically look like a serial killer who got thrown into a pool at a party while dehydrated and perhaps punched in the face with a crack pipe. More or less.
Nevertheless, I flew into Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital) on the Saturday. The drive from the airport to my hostel was something else. Back in November when my dad visited me in Italy, he was blown away by the chaotic driving. When I saw Thailand I chuckled at that because it was much worse. And then I got to Cambodia. That place takes the cake (so far) by leaps and bounds. I would rather ride motorcycle blindfolded in Rome than attempt to drive here. In theory there are lanes for traffic going both ways, but they are very much up for interpretation. Bikes, cars and tuk tuks all jockey for position as they drive, narrowly missing eachother by inches as they pass. And that's only the folks going the right way down a street. There are one-way streets and lanes seperated by medians, but if it is more convenient for a driver to go the wrong way to make a turn, then that's what they do. I quickly learned to stop watching for impending doom on the roads as a passenger, because the heart attack would kill me if the drivers didn't.
I got settled into my hostel and walked around for some exploring. I wasn't a huge fan of Phnom Penh. It's a lot poorer than Thailand, but thankfully a lot less overdeveloped too. There's only a few palaces and museums to see, which are apparently not as impressive as those in Bangkok so I didn't bother. The main tourist attractions are the killing fields and S21 prison, which I wasn't in the mood to see. So after a couple days, I hopped on a bus north to Siem Reap. I'll spare you the complaints about this bus, but if ever you're in Cambodia, do yourself a favour and spring for a “deluxe” or “vip” bus over a “standard”.
I arrived in Siem Reap after dark, but immediately warmed to it. The staff at my guest house were friendly and helpful. I had booked a room, but accidentally booked it for the following night. They only had their biggest room available, but were willing to give it to me for the price of the cheap room. I felt like royalty, having two king-sized beds and a private room to myself. A friend, Jamie, that I had made in Bangkok got in on the same evening, so we met up and hit Pub Street, the main nightlife drag in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a little more touristy than Phnom Penh, but because of that it also means better facilities in general. It also means a lot of aggressive touts. I could not cross the street to get from my guesthouse to pub street without at least 4 tuk tuk drivers barking at me (“hello sir!”) to give me a lift. It got old real quick. I also came to learn that when I was with Jamie they would only offer us tuk tuk rides. When I was by myself at night, they would also offer drugs and prostitution. It got to the point where on my way from walking Jamie back to her hotel, as soon as a tuk tuk or motodop (motorcycle taxi) driver would approach me I wouldn't look up, I would just say “no tuk tuk, no ganja, no boom boom!”. They seemed to find this entertaining, but wouldn't push, so I kept that strategy when walking solo. There were also a lot of children begging/trying to sell crappy trinkets during the day. While sitting out at a restaurant, it wasn't unusual to get asked for money at least 5 times in different ways by different people. One amusing note on this is that most of the kids have a little script prepared based on where you are from. So a kid would ask where I'm from and when I'd tell him, he would respond robotically: “Canada. Capital: Ottawa (well shit...you already know more about it than most Americans I've met on this trip kid). Prime Minister: Stephen Harper. Biggest city: Toronto. Languages: English and French. Do you speak French? Bonjour. Capital of France: Paris...”. It was cute, but it can get pretty tiresome when all you want is a quiet meal in peace.
The main tourist attractions in Siem Reap are the temples. I have to admit, I wasn't in the mood to see these either so I think I'm the only tourist to ever visit the city and not go to any. I was happy walking around and just discovering the city on foot, strolling the city, especially along the river. Jamie's grandmother was in Cambodia with her, so one night the three of us went out for dinner on pub street. Jamie and I were feeling adventurous, so we got the Khmer bbq, which is a little contraption they bring to your table. It's gas powered and you cook your own food. It has a rim around the edges that you fill with water, vegetables, and noodles, and as you cook the meat in the middle, the juices drip down to create a tasty soup at the end. Those who know me won't be surprised to learn that it wasn't the ability to cook my own food that appealed to me. It was the food that we were cooking. We were given 5 different meats. Pork, beef, frog legs, cobra, and crocodile. I wasn't too impressed with the snake because it was very tough and chewy, but I did like the crocodile. Kind of like a slightly tougher pork. Siem Reap also has lots of massages, so we treated ourselves to a couple. I quickly learned you get what you pay for though, as we found one with a rather cheap price tag. The girl would basically just dig her thumbs in everywhere, which felt nice in some areas, but not necessarily the base of my spine. She seemed legitimately surprised that I winced in pain when she did that. Ah well. The other fun option is the fish massage, where you set your feet in a big tank of water full of fish. These fish eat at the dead and dry skin, leaving your feet uh...less dry and dead skin-ish? I lack the dermatological terminology. Anyways, they tickle like all hell and it's a really weird sensation as they just swarm your feet as soon as you dunk them. I felt bad for Jamie because I guess after months of being on the road, my feet were pretty dry. She had a dozen or so fish on each foot...I had the rest of the 200 or so.
Jamie had to fly back to Korea where she teaches English and I had had enough of Siem Reap, so I headed back down to Phnom Penh on Saturday. I was only planning on staying one night as stop over on my way down to the beach town Sihanoukville. However, in the morning I was talking to a couple of English guys who wanted to go to the Killing Fields and I decided I'd stay the extra day to see it. I'm glad I did, because we ended up having a very good, although sad at times, day. I've never had a day more violence-oriented day in my life I think. It started when we were still sitting out at the common area of the hostel. We could hear a Cambodian woman screaming from inside, but ignored it. It got louder and louder until all of a sudden the owner comes barging out with the woman's hair grasped in his hands, trying not to let her get a swipe at him with the mug she was wielding in her hand. He dragged her into one of the tuk tuks and yelled at the driver to take them away to wherever they went. We were kind of stunned, but shook it off as a lover's quarrel. Then about 10 minutes later the staff started shuttering and locking the entrance to the hostel and we quickly saw why...the woman had taken a motodop back on her own because she wasn't done screaming apparently. She just sat down at the table next to us and screamed at the top of her lungs for a solid 10 minutes, and just got louder when the owner finally got back. We took that as our cue to leave. The killing fields are a little out of town, so the tuk tuks tend to cost more. There's also another somewhat notorious tourist attraction out there that one of the Brits in particular wanted to go to, so even though it wasn't the most appropriate day for it, we started there nonetheless. Uh... you may want to just skip down to the start of the next paragraph mom. We went to the shooting range which has such a bizarre set up, it's almost comical. The employees sit you down at a table and bring you a menu. Except instead of food, each page has a different gun with its own price on it. Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can shoot anything from a handgun all the way up to a Rocket Propelled Grenade. Rumour has it that for extra money, you can go somewhere even further out and shoot said RPG at a cow... apparently Cambodia doesn't have much of an active PETA presence. Having never shot a gun before, I decided I'd give the shooting range a try and settled on the AK-47. My Brit friend chose a machine gun. It was an interesting experience, but now that I've done it I can't say I'm itching to fire a gun again. It was just more of a boys and their toys curiosity than anything. Impressively I actually hit the target with about half my rounds.
From there we went to the killing fields. This is where the Khmer Rouge regime would take prisoners by the truckload from the S21 prison and kill them with various rudimentary and horrific measures and bury them in mass graves. Walking around the fields was a very disturbing experience. Because of the heavy rainfall they get for half the year, there are still bones and clothes that come up through the soil every year. So as you walk on these paths you are actually walking over bones and torn clothes from the dead beneath you. It is very sobering. At the centre of the fields is a monument that is stacked with thousands of skulls and bones in a glass case. You can see that many of the skulls have fractures in them from being killed by blunt force trauma and missing teeth from torture.
After this, we went to the S21 prison, where the prisoners were held before being murdered. It used to be a school, but was turned into a prison where unspeakable torture took place. The very quick history is that the Khmer Rouge regime wanted to eliminate anybody with ties to the previous government or anybody they felt would threaten them, so they would imprison them, torture them, and eventually kill them and their families. This included women and children, as they wanted to minimize the chances of somebody coming for revenge later. Back at the killing fields there is actually a spot on a tree that is marred because that is where they would swing children by the feet to smash their skulls. I knew a bit of what to expect back when I visited the Dachau concentration camp, but this one took me completely by surprise because we didn't learn about this history in school. What really struck me was that it took place less than 10 years before I was born. If you want to read more about this, wikipedia explains it all a lot better than I can.
By the afternoon, we had gotten to know the tuk tuk driver we had hired, Tom, pretty well and he told us there was a Cambodian kickboxing match going on in the evening. We decided to go, so he took us there after S21. When we got to the hangar it was happening in, we looked around and saw that the bleachers were completely packed. I figured we'd have to stand for the whole show, but Tom quickly made his way to the gate next to the ringside seats and spoke a few words to the girl sitting there. She waved us right through and next thing I knew, we were sitting a row behind the timekeeper and announcers table, ringside! I have no idea how we got those seats or why we didn't have to pay, but I got the strong impression it had something to do with the colour of our skin. Either way, we sat back and enjoyed the fights. There were 5 in all and were quite entertaining. At one point a man came and sat in the row in front of us, just a few seats over. I noticed pretty much everybody, including the trainer in one corner started to glance over a lot. According to Tom this man was pretty much the biggest boxer in Cambodia. We had no clue who he was, but were nonetheless impressed to be sitting amongst the high society.
So after a long day we finally returned and had dinner and a couple drinks. That was last night. This morning I woke up and finally caught my bus to Sihanoukville. I just arrived a couple hours ago, but am already looking forward to reading a book or two on the beach. I'll let you know how that goes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bucket

I had a great time in Phi Phi (pronounced pee pee - hehe). When we first got off the ferry it was a little daunting since we'd heard accommodations book up very fast on the island, and it's not uncommon for backpackers to have to turn around and get on the ferry going back since the whole island is full. Luckily we managed to find a little guesthouse for a decent price. The guesthouse itself was very basic – two beds, a fan, and a small bathroom, but that's all you really need since you're not there to stay inside. Our first day there we went up to the Phi Phi viewpoint, which had some spectacular views of the beach, which you can see in the pictures posted in the previous entry. The climb up is incredibly humbling though...it's about 15 minutes of climbing stairs that are very steep. That combined with the heat means you have to take your time. There are a couple places along the way where you can rest and buy some water, but of course the people that run these establishments are no fools and charge three times the normal rate for a bottle of water. It's unavoidable though, since I lost at least a water bottle's worth of sweat climbing up. Even people in much better shape than me (hard to imagine, I know) struggled. But it was well worth it to finally get there and observe the beaches below.
Phi Phi is a beautiful island, but it's very overdeveloped and crowded. There are no cars on Phi Phi, so there is lots of foot traffic, and some locals riding bikes, constantly shouting “beep beep” at the oblivious farangs (Thai for tourist) in their way. It's one of the more popular destinations for the young crowd. Luckily this also means it's not too hard to find some parties at night, which we did on our first night there. We even got into the spirit and bought a couple “buckets” which are basically small sand pails filled with a vile concoction of cola, red bull, and plenty of Thai whiskey. One is more than enough as we quickly discovered. They're not so bad at first, but once the ice starts to melt and the coke loses its fizz, it's just brutal. At night, there are fire shows along the beach, which are basically some Thai people juggling fire with various levels of expertise. Afterwords the beach bars blare music of all different tastes, so if you don't like one place, you can easily move on down to the next bar. One of my favourite memories from Phi Phi was on the walk home one night when Paul had drank one bucket too many (total: one bucket) and was given an impatient beep beep by a passing cyclist. For the rest of the way there, Paul managed to mimic the tone and cadence perfectly, shouting “beep beep” at anybody in front of us. Watching them jump out of the way was priceless. Sometimes this actually did get us around some slow pedestrians, but as often as not the people in front of us would be a good 5 yards in front of us and walking at the same pace. Guess you had to be there.
The following day was spent relaxing in the shade on the beach, where I managed to put a good dent into Rainbow Six, a 900 page tome that I conquered within a week. The great thing about most hostels is they have lots of book shelves, so when you're done your book, you can simply swap it for a new one.
On our third day, Paul and I did a boat tour that lasted all afternoon and took us to many different spots. The first was Monkey beach, where hundreds of tourists line up each day to take pictures of the monkeys that inhabit the beach. Then we went to a little bay with warm shallow water for a quick swim and to snack on some pineapple. After that we went to another bay to do some snorkeling where you can see many different tropical fish. I've only snorkeled once before and find it tough to breathe only through my mouth via a tube, but after a few minutes I got the hang of it. The trick is not to tilt your head too much, otherwise you get a nice throatful of sea water. After this we went to Maya Bat, which is famous in backpacker circles as the filming location for The Beach. Its appeal in the movie is its extreme seclusion. Now it's notoriously overrun with longboats and people, as you can see in some of the pictures. Pretty much every tour boat goes there, so it's not quite that special any more. The trip ended with enjoying the sunset on the water. At less than 10 dollars canadian, it was quite the deal.
After that it was just a lot of reading on the beach and checking out the nightlife. Luckily I managed to wake up early on Monday morning and caught the Superbowl, which was the first full football game I've seen since leaving. While it was a little slow at times, it was great watching the game, regardless of the time.
Finally on Friday we decided it was time to move on and came to Ao Nang, a smaller beach town on the south coast of the mainland. We booked a thatch hut guesthouse, which I think threw Paul off a bit. It's a nice spot and very social atmosphere, but the amenities are barebones at best. It reminds me a lot of Baboo's Gardens, the campground in the mountains of Jamaica that I've visited twice. I must admit I was a little unsure too when I heard some critters scurrying across the ceiling right above my bed in the middle of the night too, but thankfully nothing attacked me – that I know of.
So right now we're just waiting in Ao Nang to catch the bus back up to the belly of the beast – Bangkok. Unfortunately it's a 14 hour ride, so it'll be a long one. Paul's flying home on Tuesday, and I need to go there to finally get my new bank card sent. While there I may also apply for a visa to visit one of the neighbouring countries as well. I'm not sure where I'll be heading to after Bangkok, but when I do, I'll be sure to keep you posted. Later!
By the way, happy birthday mom! I wish I could have been there to celebrate with you. Love you!

Update – we made it to Bangkok after the terribly long bus ride. We managed to sleep a bit in some real beds upon arrival, so we're well rested. Which is good, since it's Paul's birthday tonight and we're gonna make it a good one. Beep Beep Bangkok!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Phi Phi pictures

I don't have time for a new post at the momnet, so in the meantime, here are some pics of Phi Phi