A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

rain 20 °C

Saigon

We both arrived in Saigon after a 16 hour bus journey, with serious cases of man-flu. So after a day to recover, we headed out that night to explore the city. Saigon is a typical chaotic Asian city. One minute you're getting lost in a maze of tiny alley ways lined with thin, tall buildings that look as if they've had 5 extra floors balanced precariously on top as an after thought; the next you're stood among skyscrapers and bright lights trying to cross an unbelievably busy road. We had never seen traffic like the traffic in Saigon. A constant stream of bikes swarm the wide roads, and the only way to cross them is to hold your breath, step out and edge slowly across as the bikes swerve past you on either side. The parks are filled with free exercise equipment (the first form of exercise we've done in a while!), and people taking part in dance classes, kung-fu classes, playing badminton or football or just kicking around a shuttlecock. At night the streets are lined with tiny bars and restaurants with little plastic chairs and tables, and there's a great atmosphere, with strangers sitting and drinking and talking with each other over 20p pints of beer. We instantly loved the city. We got stuck in straight away trying the Vietnamese cuisine, but it took us a while to find something we liked (and believe me Shaun is not a fussy eater!) as everything seemed to include gristly, tough meat.
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Whilst we were in Saigon we went to visit the war remnants museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a remarkable underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. We had a hilarious tour guide who continuously told inappropriate jokes, so the day was unexpectedly light-hearted despite the serious nature of the place. We saw the different sorts of traps used against the Americans and the south Army, we were able to climb through some of the remaining tunnels (which were incredibly claustrophobic and hot), sit in a tank and finish off the day by having a go at firing an AK47 at the shooting range. The war museum however was much darker and more depressing. Outside were old American tanks, bombers and weapons, but inside was filled with horrific images from the war and its aftermath. From whole villages being massacred, to the ongoing effects of Napalm on the ecosystem and agriculture, and the lasting effects of 'Agent Orange'; a 'defoliant' used by the American Army which causes genetic defects that are passed on through numerous generations.
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Delat

From Saigon we took a bus up into the highlands to a small town called Delat, which despite the cold and rain (which we hadn't seen in months!) was really beautiful. We were lucky enough to meet Mr Hong, an old, local motorbike tour guide with over 15 years experience, that took us (along with his shy, young employee Ha) for an incredibly unique, full-day tour of the countryside on the back of his bike. We started off the day at a temple, followed by a coffee plantation and a place where they ferment and distill rice wine (which is extremely strong and definitely an acquired taste!). We then went to a place where they make 'weasel coffee'. This is where they feed coffee beans to weasels, who are unable to digest them, and then collect their droppings to make coffee - it's apparently incredibly expensive... don't ask me why. They then took us to elephant waterfall, and if we weren't drenched enough from the rain, we certainly were after we'd climbed down to the base of this enormous waterfall. We then saw a huge happy Buddha before going to a local restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese lunch. Even the tofu had meat stuffed into it. There was also a very smelly fish dish and an unidentifiable grey meat wrapped in leaves - but it turns out that bamboo shoots are delicious! After lunch we went to a silk factory, where we saw everything from the little silk worms making their cocoons, to the silk being weaved and embroidered. They even showed us how they boil the worms after they've been removed from their cocoons so they can eat them for lunch (Shaun obviously felt the need to try one). After that we headed to a flower farm and the 'crazy house' (a honey moon resort built by a Russian architect who clearly had some underlying issues) before heading back to town. We enjoyed the tour so much that we decided to book to go on a 3 day tour through the central highlands starting the next day.
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Delat - Lak Lake - Buon Ma Thout - Nha Trang

So the next day we strapped our rucksacks onto the back of the bikes and set off with Hong and Ha into the central highlands. We spent the next 3 days riding through dense jungle, sprawling green rice paddies, fragrant coffee plantations, huge fields of sugar cane and tiny villages; past herds of doe-eyed water buffalo and skinny brown cows, children cycling home from school shouting hello and reaching out to give us high-fives, women walking home with their harvest strapped to their backs in huge wicker baskets, and one little boy on his bike taking his enormous water buffalo for a walk. Mr Hong was incredible, it turns out he was brought up in a small village as one of nine brothers and sisters (many of whom fought for the south army during the war). His first job was making charcoal, and now he lives with his wife, kids and grand-kids in Delat, and runs his own tour business. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his country, and was full of anecdotes. Some hilarious (mainly about his wife), some inspiring and moving.
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The first day we went to a temple, a spring onion farm, a minority village where we saw hand-weaving, a mushroom farm, a place where they shape bonsai trees, and after stopping to fix a flat tire (obviously the trip couldn't run completely smoothly!) we stopped for lunch (still no improvement!) and then headed to a small Mai minority village where they gave us rice wine and sang songs for us round the fire (in exchange for us singing a song for them -but I'm not sure they were too impressed by jingle bells). The two oldest villagers were the smallest, oldest looking people I'd ever seen, but Mr Hong told us not to be deceived by their frail appearance, and that they're actually very terrible and killed a great many American soldiers during the war. After that we went to see a floating fisherman's village and a Malong minority burial site, where for the fist three years after a relative dies, they leave a long piece of bamboo sticking out of the ground that goes into the coffin and all the way into their mouths. This is used to pour rice wine and food down to the body, until it is sealed three years later.
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We woke up early the next morning to a beautiful view over Lak Lake, and set off to visit a Malong 'long house' village. After that we went to a rice farm and had a go at harvesting some rice (which is harder than it looks!), to a passion fruit farm and to Mr Hong's friend's house, who happened to collect enormous pythons and antique bikes (I think this was Shaun's favorite stop so far). We then watched some local fishermen before lunch. The food had definitely improved, as we were given Pho - a beef noodle soup that we really enjoyed! We then went swimming in one of the most impressive waterfalls we've seen in Asia so far, and we saw an elephant grazing in the jungle. We then saw a huge soya bean factory where hundreds of women spent eight hours a day sorting the good beans from the bad. We had a quick stop at a place that made huge drums for temples, before heading to the hotel in Buon Ma Thuot. That night we had a venison BBQ and a duck hotpot - which was surprisingly one of the best meals we've had in Asia!
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The next morning was another very early start, and we stopped off at a rubber tree plantation, a cocoa bean plantation and a place where they make charcoal before stopping at a place where they make rice paper for a snack. We then stopped at a place that made rice noodles, a black pepper plantation and a place where they made incense sticks (I was excited about this because I got to make some and I'm easily amused). We stopped off at a place that did wood carving, a village that was harvesting tapioca and a place where they made bricks, before stopping for a seafood lunch and a walk around a fisherman's village (Shaun was happy here because he found crabs... also easily amused).
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We eventually reached Nha Trang and were completely exhausted from the packed three days, but the trip was easily one of the best things we've done so far on our trip, and we were sad to say goodbye Mr Hong as he set off on the long ride back to Delat.
After a day relaxing on the beach in Nha Trang, we set off to Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An is a beautiful, romantic little riverside town filled with quaint, traditional Vietnamese buildings, and at night lit by countless colourful lanterns hung from the trees and rooftops. There are so many cafes, restaurants, bakeries and suvineer shops, that its easy to waste away your days there. There are also hundreds of tailors, and Shaun wasted no time in going to get measured up for a tailored suit. He picked the style, the material, the lining and got his measurements taken, and when we came back the next day for his fitting it was practically finished! He really loved it, and I felt a bit left out so I got myself a dress. We found an amazing restaurant on a balcony over the river where we could finally get a real steak and ale pie and chocolate brownie (after three months in Asia we were beginning to crave home cooked pub food!). When we weren't in the tailors or sitting in cafes and bars over the river, we hired bikes and went exploring the villages, rice paddies and beaches on the outskirts of town. At one point, I'd stopped to take a picture of a rice field when a local farmer ran towards us, stuck his sun hat on my head and passed me his spear. Then he let me have a go of his slingshot, but he said I wasn't very good... then he asked me for a dollar - nothing is free here! We also rode straight into the Argentinians that we'd met at new year, so spent some time with them whilst we were there too. We could have spent much longer in Hoi An, but eventually it was time to move up to Hanoi.
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Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

After a days stop off in Hue, we arrived in Hanoi only to realize that Shaun had had his iPhone stolen whilst we were asleep on the night bus. This was shortly followed by getting completely scammed by the taxi driver taking us to our hostel. And to top it all off it was cold and raining and Hanoi felt gloomy and cluttered and chaotic. We had to fight our way down a complete labyrinth of narrow streets alongside nine million other people and their seven million bikes! The pavements are all taken up by everything from stalls, restaurants, women washing clothes, men mending shoes... not to mention countless motorbikes parked haphazardly all over the place. It didn't take long for us to have a complete headache, so we booked to go on a two day boat trip on Ha Long bay and left the next morning.

We started the trip with a sea food lunch on the boat whilst getting to know the rest of the people on the cruise. Everyone seemed really nice, especially the Argentinians; who were just as excitable and had the same insatiable need to dance as the last Argentinians we'd met! We visited Heaven Cave, which was really huge and beautiful and definitely didn't need the water features and neon lights! We then sailed through the huge limestone karst formations that stand majestically out of the sea. Ha Long Bay means 'where the dragon descends into the sea', and you can see how it got its name because there is something completely magical about the place. It was very surreal sat on the top deck of the boat playing table football and ring of fire whilst drifting through some of the most beautiful scenery we've ever seen. We had time for a quick swim before dinner (and when I say we, I mean Shaun... It was way too cold for a bikini!) and then spent the rest of the night playing international, multilingual drinking games. The next morning we had a really early start for a kayak trip around the bay. Shaun did not look impressed at having to sit in a kayak whilst concentrating on not being sick, but when he found a horse-shoe crab he was too excited to remember that he was hungover. Back on the boat we had a go at making some spring rolls, and then after another sea food lunch we sadly headed back to Hanoi.
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We decided to give Hanoi a second chance since we didn't really arrive under the best circumstances the first time round. We did find a bar (plastic chairs and a keg on the street) that sold 10p pints of beer, stalls that sold mini doughnuts, crepes and mozzarella sticks, we saw temples and an embalmed turtle and found some great restaurants. We went to a water puppet show that Shaun was not too impressed with, and when I tried to explain that he needed to appreciate that the art-form had been around for over a thousand years, he told me he wouldn't have paid to watch it a thousand years ago. We also decided it was about time we got our haircut, but as the hairdresser didn't speak a word of English, I came out a whole four inches lighter with what can only be described as a bob, and Shaun ended up looking like a freshly sheared lamb. We also got completely scammed at a street restaurant, chased by cyclo drivers, people trying to clean our shoes and women trying to put their hats on my head for a dollar. So after being ripped off, scammed, scalped, hassled and robbed... we were ready to get back to Thailand!
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Our 6am airport pick up turned up 45 minutes late, and Shaun tried to board the plane with a weapon - which we thought was an appropriate end to our time in Hanoi!

Posted by ShaunYardley 08:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cambodia

sunny 28 °C

Ban Lung

We decided that we'd make Ban Lung our first stop in Cambodia, it's a little off the tourist trail but we'd heard that it was surrounded by jungle, and not far from a huge national park and lots of little villages. When we arrived we were taken on the back of motorbikes to our hostel, which is by far the worst place we've stayed in Asia. The signs on the doors to each of the rooms that said 'No drugs, weapons and sex-traders', kind of gives you an idea of what kind of place this was! It didn’t take us long to realize that Cambodia was a lot more deprived than we could have imagined. The town was nothing more than a red dirt road lined with a few run down shops and restaurants with beds in the back where whole families worked and lived. There was a huge bustling market but the indescribable, putrid smell meant that we didn't spend too long in there. On the way out, the cause of the smell became apparent as we saw an absolutely enormous pile of rotting rubbish lying in the middle of the stalls. The villages on the outskirts of town consisted of whole families living in tiny makeshift wooden frames with bits of plastic or sheets for walls and roofs, skinny pigs tied to sticks and half naked children running around at the side of the road. However, it also didn't take us long to realize that the Cambodian people seemed to be among the friendliest and most humble and helpful that we've ever met. Especially the kids, who run towards you shouting hello whenever they see you. On our first day we hired a scooter, and after filling up at the 'petrol station' (a barrel and pump under an umbrella at the side of the road), we went off to explore the surrounding countryside. We found a beautiful crater lake surrounded by Jungle, and after getting chased by a large angry monkey, Shaun started diving off the deck into the lake. I hung back because girls had to go in fully clothed, but when a group of Cambodian girls asked me to go swimming with them I couldn't really say no... So I spent the rest of the day soaking wet! After seeing some small villages and having lunch, we continued on to find the waterfalls, but when we were about 5km out of town we got a flat tire and had to push the scooter all the way back to hostel! Much to the amusement of the locals who all made the effort of coming out of their shops to laugh at us as we shuffled past. It's safe to say that we hadn't had the best luck since arriving in Cambodia!
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Phnom Penh

The next morning we caught the bus to Phnom Penh. The city was completely hectic, and the wealth disparity here was extremely prominent. The roads were swarming with bikes piled high with boxes, mattresses, huge blocks of ice and full families of four, speeding by alongside shiny new 4X4s. We drove past huge mansions with electric gates, followed by whole families living in a tiny one roomed shop or sleeping on a mat at the side of the road. Obscenely expensive hotels, boutique shops and fine dining restaurants line the streets alongside beggars, street children, landmine victims and people selling books and bracelets out of baskets. One side of the river is lined with huge grand ornate buildings, whereas the other side is over run by tiny corrugated iron and wooden huts. You can spend $100 on a meal or eat delicious authentic Khmer food from one of the many street vendors for just a couple of dollars. It's a busy, charming city that's full of life and energy, but you don't have to look far to see that it is still recovering from the scars left by the Khmer rouge.
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On our first day we went round the central markets and the Russian markets, and split up to buy each other tacky little presents for Christmas. So after a nice morning we went to visit Tulong Sleng; a school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation camp. One building is filled with haunting images of the victims that were imprisoned and tortured here, from frail old people to young men, women and children. Some rooms still hold the torture devices and metal beds that the last few victims were found strapped to. The next building was kept as it was found, a 3 story concrete structure covered with barbed wire, housing hundreds of tiny cells. The place was intense and deeply upsetting. That night we went to a really nice restaurant called 'Friends' that employs former street children and provides them with training to give them a head start on entering into the hospitality industry. The next day we visited the Killing Fields (the biggest 'extermination' camp run by the Khmer Rouge) which was even more hard hitting that Tulong Sleng. None of the original structures are left standing, and other than the tall memorial stupor filled with piles and piles of victims skulls, there is nothing to indicate the horrors that occurred here. Instead the place is full of trees and flowers and butterflies, and everyone is given an audio guide where a survivor tells his story and the story of those who were killed here as he walks you through the grounds. Because everyone is so absorbed in their own audio guide, the place is completely silent and peaceful. We learnt that when the Khmer rouge murdered a prisoner, they also murdered their whole family, and so the most traumatizing part of the tour was the killing tree; where babies were brutally killed and dumped in a nearby mass grave. So, after being thoroughly depressed and with a sense that I had lost all faith in humanity, we went back to the city and went on a sunset Mekong cruise to try and cheer ourselves up! The next day we just wondered round getting a feel for the city, eating ice-cream and watching the locals take part in mass aerobics and dancing sessions, or playing football along the riverside, before moving onto to Siam Reap the day after.
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Siam Reap

We came to Siam Reap to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat; the 8th wonder of the world. So when we arrived in a bustling little town filled with hordes of tourists, neon lights and streets lined with pubs, clubs and restaurants, we were definitely surprised! We were picked up at 5am the next morning by our tuk-tuk driver (despite Shaun's protests!) to go and watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Now you'd imagine sitting at an ancient temple watching the sun come up would be a peaceful experience, however with around 1000 other tourists all sat on a hill in the dark like they're watching a concert, it was far from it! After the sun had risen our driver took us to all the main temples on the complex, our favorite was obviously where tomb raider was filmed, a huge crumbling temple with enormous trees growing out of the stone structures that looked to be almost held together by the colossal roots! The whole place is huge, and it's impossible to see everything in a week never mind a day, but with such an early start we were well and truly finished by half 1, and went back to town for lunch and a nap! Whilst we were in Siam Reap we met up with some friends we'd met in Laos and had a surprisingly good night out on 'pub street', where a group of Cambodians singing Christmas songs on karaoke was our first indication that Christmas was only a week away!
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Sihanouk Ville

The next day we'd planned to go to Kep for a few days before heading to Sihanouk Ville in time for Christmas Eve, but Cambodian buses had other ideas. A few hours into the journey the bus stopped at the side of the road. After a while we all slowly started filing off the bus to find the driver pouring water over a steaming engine. After the bus had spluttered back to life, some people refused to get back on and demanded a replacement, but after about an hour arguing the driver told them that a replacement bus was not going to come so they either get on or he’d leave them in the middle of nowhere... So we took our chances with the bus and left a group of about 10 people standing at the side of the road. By the time we eventually got to Sihanouk Ville around midday we would have had to wait another 3 hours and then get a 3 hour minibus to Kep, so we decided we’d just stay where we were and have an extended beach holiday in the middle of our trip! When we walked onto Ottres beach and booked into a hut that was just a few meters away from the sea, we knew we’d made the right decision.
So we spent the next few days sunbathing, playing in the sea, eating fresh fish and having BBQs every night. Shaun also discovered that if he stamped on holes in the sand, little crabs ran out of them and he could chase them... so that kept him amused for hours! The only problem was that the whole town seemed to be in a constant power cut, and our guesthouse was the only one without a backup generator. Having a shower and getting ready with a tea light and a head torch is easier said than done.
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On Christmas day we hired a Kayak and went out to the nearby islands to go snorkeling, and then came back to have fresh crab and cocktails on the beach for Christmas lunch. That night we actually found a restaurant that was serving a full Christmas dinner... including pigs in blankets (hot dog sausages wrapped in bacon) and mulled wine. We’d had a really good day but it was so weird Skyping our families back home, it definitely didn’t feel like Christmas without them!
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In between Christmas and New Year we spent a few nights on a paradise island, Koh Rong Samloen, just off the coast. It was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen, the sand was so white it was like icing sugar, the sea was crystal clear and our beach hut was practically luxury compared to what we’d been staying in so far! We found a jetty that Shaun insisted he wanted to jump off, when I told him that he’d never be able to climb back up because it was too high, he took this as a challenge and jumped straight in... Only to cut his feet to shreds on barnacles trying to climb back up! There was hardly anyone else on the island, except on the 2nd night; we saw a huge, yellow, full moon rise out of the sea whilst the locals were squid fishing in the shallows, and shortly after, to our surprise a boat load of people turned up for a mini full moon party, complete with cheap Mekong buckets and fire dancers.
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We made it back to the main land just in time for New Years Eve. Our guesthouse was run by such a nice English family. They invited all the guests to a party in town, where a really excitable Argentinean couple were trying to teach us to Salsa (unfortunately my lack of rhythm was getting in the way) and Shaun tried a bird embryo that was still in its egg (he said it was the worst thing he's ever tasted... and he's tried most things!). After the party we headed down to the beach for the huge beach party. There were so many people there, surprisingly of all ages, full families including little kids just dancing away on the beach. It was such a good atmosphere, and an amazing end to our time in Cambodia!
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Posted by ShaunYardley 17:50 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Laos

semi-overcast 28 °C

Arriving in Laos, we were completely taken aback by how beautiful the place was, the friendliness and languid, laid-back attitude of the people and the infectious slow pace of life here. At first glance its hard to believe that Laos is one of the poorest countries on earth.

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After landing in Vientienne, we quickly made our way up to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a small town famous for tubing, but we were told a few months before we arrived that it had been banned due to such an unsurprisingly high number of deaths. Because tubing was the main tourist attraction here, when we arrived the place was like a ghost town and the guest houses, restaurants and the few bars that were open were mostly empty. However, because of our preconception of the place being solely a party town, we were so shocked at how incredibly beautiful it was. Huge karst formations stand on either side of the wide river covered in dense vegetation, and the whole place is filled with sprawling rice paddies, caves, villages and butterflies the size of your hand! So we were glad we'd decided to stop off here despite tubing no longer being on offer.

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The next day we went on a full day kayaking and caving trip, which started off with us strapping on head torches, jumping into a rubber ring and pulling ourselves through a very small cave entrance at the side of the river. As small spaces and the dark are not exactly my favorite things, I did begin to wonder why I'd paid to do this! It turns out rubber rings are not the easiest way to navigate through a long, dark, narrow cave, but we eventually got the hang of it! It was definitely a surreal experience! Once we reached the end we let go of the ropes and let the current take us back out to the river.

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After a quick swim we went to a small village for lunch, where the term fresh free range chicken was taken to whole new levels... one minute it was running around the village, next it was on a BBQ and served up on a banana leaf! After lunch we went to another cave and then started the 15km kayaking trip down the river. The kayak wasn't the easiest thing to control when we hit the rapids, and we did somehow manage to end up in a tree. Which was fine until Shaun realized that a 2ft snake had fallen into his lap. I've never seen him move so quick! After we'd stopped screaming, and the guide had stopped laughing, he told us that seeing a snake on a journey is apparently good luck, which may have had some truth in it because we were one of the only boats that didn't capsize when we hit the rapids again later on! We met another really nice couple on the trip and spent the majority of the rest of our time in Vang Vieng with them. We spent that night in a bar that was giving out free 'whiskey' shots, but as all the bars now had a curfew we decided to spend the next night sat by the river with a bottle of rum instead.

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We did try what was left of the tubing whilst we were there, but somehow I didn't think floating down the river in a rubber ring with a couple of beers was quite the same without all the bars and rope swings lining the river! I think the laid back Laos lifestyle was starting to rub off on us, as we also spent a great deal of our time relaxing by the pool, eating pancakes and drinking watermelon shakes! So with the risk of Vang Vieng turning into a repeat of our extended stay Pai, we decidied to make our way up to Luang Probang.

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As Laos was part of a French colany untill the 50's, it has a massive French influence, and Luang Probang felt especially european. Whilst we were there we visited the most beautiful waterfalls we've ever seen, the water was so blue and with the sun coming through the trees it looked like something out of a fairytale. We spent the day jumping off waterfalls and rope swings, and getting eaten by tiny cleaner fish! (Why people pay for that treatment is beyond me!). We also went to a sun bear sanctuary, a hill top temple with amazing views over the city (the greenest city I've ever seen with more palm trees than buildings!), did a sunset yoga session on the river, spent a whole days budget on presents from the night markets, and spent the rest of our time in French cafes eating cakes and coissants, and lying by the river on futons drinking homemade lemonade.

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Following the most relaxing week and a half of our trip so far, we had the most horrendous 2 day journey down to Siphandon (4000 islands) in the far south of Laos. This consisted of a tuk-tuk, a sleeper bus, a 12 hour stop over in Vientienne, 2 mini buses, another sleeper bus, another mini bus, a coach and a boat. It turns out that the laid-back attitutde here comes hand in hand with a complete lack of organization! But we did eventually arrive on Don Det, and the journey was definately worth it.

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We met another couple, Jenny and Ben on the coach and got 2 wooden riverside huts next to each other on the sunset side of the island. We spent the day recovering from the journey sat in the hammoks drinking whiskey and coke, and the next day we went on another kayaking trip around the islands. The islands are beautiful, and as we kayaked around them we saw huge sleepy water buffalo bathing in the mekong, fisherman in little wooden boats and little kids running out to the river side shouting 'Sabaidee!'. After visiting one island to see a waterfall, we kayaked through rapids towards Cambodian waters. Jenny and Ben somehow managed to capsize their kayak in the narrowest stretch of water they could find, causing a 5 kayak pile up that we narrowly escaped, but we eventually reached the big expanse of water between Laos and Cambodia where we saw irrawaddy dolphins just ahead of us! They're a really rare fresh water dolphin, and there are only about 100 left in the mekong so we were so lucky to see them! We stopped at an empty beach for lunch and a swim, and they continued to kayak. It started to get harder now as there was no current to help us along, and it wasn't long before Shaun got bored and started splashing me... relentlessy. When this wasn't getting the desired reaction he started rocking the kayak instead. I told him I wouldn't help paddle untill he stopped and appologised, which he responed to by splashing me... so he ended up paddiling on his own to the next island whilst I sat there getting splashed. We finally reached the next island to see the largest waterfall in South East Aisia, and then had to kayak back to Don Det! By this point I would have been happy if I never saw a kayak again, but then the sun was setting and there were dozens of little kids playing in the river, pulling us along, climbing onto our kayaks and jumping off, so it ended up being a really nice end to the day.

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The next day we rented bikes and went to explore the neighbouring island Don Khon. When we were cycling past a school, two young kids started waving us over, and when we stopped they jumped on our bikes to hitch a ride! It was baking hot, and quite a long way before they pointed to their house and jumped off, so we guessed that they must hitch a lift home from school most days! After that we found a deserted beach, and a little wooden riverside hut where we bought some fresh fish before cycling back. That night we went out with a group of people that we'd met on our balcony, one of which was a German girl who became more and more vocal about disliking English people the more she drank! But other than that we had a great last night in Laos!

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We really wish that we'd had more time to see Laos as we've had an amazing time here, but now it's time for us to move onto Cambodia!

Posted by ShaunYardley 04:03 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

China (2)

Yunnan (Kunming, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Dali)

semi-overcast 14 °C

As Kunming is affectionately known as the 'spring city', this may not conjure up images of high rise concrete buildings, traffic, crowds and smog. But that is unfortunately what we arrived to! Being tired of big cities after our week in Beijing, we thought we'd spend just one day here and then get a night train up to Lijiang. We started the day by going to see the flower and bird market, where you can buy any animal imaginable. From puppies to squirrels, beetles to chinchillas. Whilst we were there, we witnessed a hamster theft! An old woman stuck her hand in a box of baby hamsters, stuck two in her pocket and briskly walked away! We then made our way up to Green Park Lake, but we started to feel a little like the tourist attraction as the majority of the locals were staring at us. One even took a picture! We couldn't figure out if it was Shaun's tattoo, the fact he was a foot taller than everyone else, or just because we were the only westerners in the place. We then had just enough time to try the Yunnan delicacy 'Across the bridge noodles', which consisted of a large bowl of boiling broth and a plate of raw meat, a raw egg, and some rice noodles that you throw quickly into the bowl for them to cook. I mainly ate the noodles and left the meat because from what we could tell it consisted of tripe and chicken neck! We then caught the sleeper train up to Lijiang.
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Arriving in Lijiang early in the morning felt like walking on to the set of an old kung fu film. The old town was filled with traditional Naxi wooden architecture, cobbled streets and wooden bridges over the innumerable canals that ran haphazardly through the town. All to a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The streets were empty at this time and the whole place had a calm, mysterious feel, but when we ventured back into town later on that day, the hoards of tourists had piled in and the wooden buildings had opened up into various tea shops, restaurants and souvenir stalls. It kind of felt like a like a Disney version of China, but we both enjoyed ambling round the shops, trying the different foods (I think Shaun is making it his mission to try every animal on offer... today it was Yak hooves) and soaking up the busy atmosphere.
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Early the next morning we caught a bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a two day trek. At 3900m, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world. We were dropped off on the side of the road with a very basic map, and swiftly formed a group with 2 Chinese guys, a Spanish guy and a German guy, (who, unlike us, looked like they knew what they were doing!) and began the assent up to the upper trail of the gorge. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch, and the benefits of hiking with Chinese people quickly became evident as they could order all of our food, and for once we actually knew what we were eating.
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After lunch came the most difficult part of the trek; the '28 bends' up to the top of the mountain. It was definitely more like 58 bends and towards the end of it we had to stop after every few minutes because I was pretty sure I was going to die. At one point Shaun had to take my bag off me because he said I'd never make it otherwise! I was blaming the altitude but seeing as the Chinese guys who smoke 20 a day and were carrying their camping gear had to keep stopping to wait for us, I started to realise that it may have been my lack of general fitness. I didn't moan too much though, but I think I may have protested more if I'd have been able to catch my breath for long enough.
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When we got to the top the views were incredible, but I think I would have appreciated them more if there had been a cable car to take me to the top! We then continued along the gorge to the Half Way guest house . The upper trail that carved its way through the mountain side was so dizzyingly high up, and it was mainly narrow paths with lose stones and shear drops. In places we found ourselves edging our way round fallen rocks and climbing across waterfalls as the mountains loomed above us menacingly making us feel unimaginably small.
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After 6 hours we finally reached the guest house, I was absolutely exhausted and was craving beef stew with a Mellors muffin! But instead, the Chinese guys ordered a chicken hotpot for 6, which I guessed wasn't too different. However, when they told us it included a whole chicken, I didn't realise that this meant a whole chicken. When I saw its head bobbing on the top, my appetite disappeared. Shaun however obviously loved it, and even ate one of the chicken feet... I stuck to rice.
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The next day we finished the remainder of the 23km trek and were joined half way by a very cute dog that decided to come along for the walk. At one point, to reach the river at the base of the gorge, we had to climb down a set of steal ladders that were bolted into the rock... I think it was at this point that Shaun suddenly decided he was scared of heights!
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We returned to Lijiang that night thinking that I would never be able to walk again!
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After the trek we were feeling completely worn out, so decided to head down to Dali for a few days to relax. Dali was beautiful, and kind of like a less manufactured version of Lijiang, with its crumbling little stone buildings with yellowing grass sprouting from their roofs, and people selling vegetables and other food from carts and baskets along the cobbled streets. It seemed like the perfect place to wind down for a few days. The hostel had two kittens and a puppy, so Shaun didn't really want to leave the common room, never mind the town. But unfortunately for him I'm not good at doing nothing, and tend to feel restless rather than relaxed... so i did end up dragging him round the old town, to the local morning market and to Erhi lake. Poor Guy.
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We then got the bus back to Lijiang for our flight to Laos. On the way back the bus stopped at a 'service station'. The toilets consisted of a trough and nothing more. So my last memory of China will now be squatting alongside middle aged Chinese women, whilst they are having a wee and coughing up phlegm as if their life depended on it. Scarred for life.

Posted by ShaunYardley 18:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Pai and back to Chiang Mai)

sunny 32 °C

Chang Mai

After we’d not really had the best start to our trip, arriving in Chang Mai was like a breath of fresh air. Although it’s a busy modern city that has every amenity you could ask for (including a Starbucks and a McDonalds), it still manages to retain its authentic Thai charm. Its set with a back drop of huge Jungle covered mountains, it’s littered with beautifully ornate working temples and the people are incredibly friendly and easy going. We were staying in the old city that is completely surrounded by a moat and the old city walls. We really struck lucky with our hostel, Moijito Gardens. The communal area is a little garden lit by fairy lights, with a gazebo, deck chairs and little bar. But what really made our stay was the hostel owner Aoi. She sat with us for ages giving us loads of information about what to do and see in Chang Mai and booked us onto all our trips.

We went to the tiger Kingdom, where you're really quite torn between thinking it’s really unnatural, and just being so excited that you're actually playing with tigers. There are signs everywhere saying that the animals aren't drugged, they're just so placid and comfortable with human contact because they've been bread generations upon generations into captivity. They're essentially domestic cats. But it still doesn't completely get rid of your unease. On saying that, it was an amazing experience and we'd both do it again in a heartbeat! We also went to a snake farm, an orchid and butterfly house (that had no butterflies so was essentially a big green house), Chang Mai Zoo, Doi Suthep (This ancient - but very touristy - temple set up in the mountains with an amazing view over Chang Mai), and to a Thai boxing tournament. We also did a Thai cooking class where we were picked up from our hostel and rode in the back of a pick-up-truck to an organic farm. We cooked an amazing 5 course meal, by the end of it we couldn't eat another bite and we went outside to set off fire lanterns. We returned from the cooking class to find that the hostel was having a BBQ and there was free Moijitos all night. We met some really nice people that night, and it was only slightly disturbed by the very enthusiastic cast of Jersey shore crashing the 'awesome' BBQ. The main guy was called Bert... and never wore a shirt... honestly... you can't make this stuff up.
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The Trek

For some reason we decided it would be a good idea to do a two day Jungle trek, complete with Elephant riding, bamboo rafting and a night in a remote mountain village. To begin with we quickly discovered that our guide was a completely crazy pyromaniac. He'd only been a guide for 1 week and he'd had every job under the sun. Anyway, to my shock, this was no casual stroll up Mount Snowdon... This was hacking through bamboo, climbing over falling trees and wading through mud at nearly a vertical angle. The start of the trek was tough, 34C heat is the not the perfect condition to be hiking in when your both extremely unfit! But then, the rains came. And I mean rain like the monsoon scene from Jumanji. We may as well have been stood fully clothed under a power shower. And it lasted ALL DAY! I'll be honest, I almost threw a tantrum... but when we got to the top the view was worth it. The rain had just subsided but a great mist rose up between the mountains giving this eerie, surreal feel. But it was just incredible; all you could see was thick dense jungle. We stayed in a bamboo hut on the floor at the top of the mountain. After a surprisingly good 10 hour sleep we woke up to the most amazing view we've ever seen! The clouds had cleared, the sun was bright but the air was cool. It was so beautiful and serene as we sat there eating our breakfast. The hike back down was marginally easier, especially as the rains held off! We stopped half way down to cool off in the water fall and then glided back to camp on a bamboo raft... which was definitely more my style of trekking.

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Pai

We took the 3 hour journey to Pai by a mini bus driver with a death wish. Pai is a tiny town surrounded by huge, misty, jungle covered mountains, and it really is a hippie utopia! It's filled with dreadlocks, reggae, tie-die and bare feet. From what we've been told, it seems like people come here for a few days and end up never leaving! I'm not sure if the inhabitants were hippies when they arrived, or if this infectious sleepy little town slowly turns you into one.
Our first night in this hippie haven wasn't exactly perfect. Our 'hostel' was a bamboo hut partly open at the side, and the 'bathroom' was a spider infested concrete outhouse with a bucket. Needless to say we lasted 1 night before we moved to Darling view point hostel that was much more to our taste. We met a really nice group of people here in Pai, and ended up extending our stay from 3 days to a week. Howeve, Bert with no shirt had followed us here, and he still had not grasped the concept of wearing a shirt.
We wasted away our days exploring the surrounding area on our scooters that we hired for £2 a day. We found natural hot springs and spent hours in these warm mineral baths, went to Pai canyon, dived into the freezing cold Pen Bok waterfall, lounged by this incredible infinity pool at a luxury resort, sampled every dish the night markets had to offer, and we were even slightly cultural and went to a morning meditation class that left me sleepy rather than enlightened. One of our favorite moments was when we stopped to ask for directions at a little farm, and instead they sat us down and brought out fresh fruit juice, bananas, passion fruits, tamarind, peanuts, potatoes, banana crisps and jam. All grown and homemade there on their land.
We were sad to leave Pai, but after a relaxing week we were ready to head back down to Chang Mai for our Elephant Mahout course!

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Elephant Mahout Training Camp

For our last day in North Thailand, we wanted to do something a bit special, so we decided to do a 1 day Elephant Mahout training course. We did a lot of research into different camps because we wanted one where the Elephants were well looked after and happy, and this one seemed to be the best. We started our day learning the different commands in Thai that you have to use when riding your elephant, and a little about how the elephants are looked after. Then we went down to feed them and to get used to being around them before we learnt how to ride them. To get onto your elephant you have to say 'Yo Ka' and the elephant will lift up its leg so you can climb onto his back. This is easier said than done, and not the most graceful process... it’s even harder climbing down! I fell over almost every time! So once we were on we attempted to use the commands we'd just learnt; forward, backwards, right, left, stop. This works unless there’s food in their peripheral vision, and then you have no chance. After lunch we rode the elephants to a field where they could have a rest and eat... elephants have to eat around 20 hours a day because they can't store their food. Which also means that when they’re not busy eating, they’re pooing. Our elephant was a rescue elephant and was skinnier and less mischievous than the rest so it was quite sad. We rode them to a river after that where we bathed and played with them. They loved being in the river, they squirted us with water and rolled around whilst we cleaned them. The whole day was unbelievable, it was best experience we've had since we've been here. We came back to the hostel absolutely exhausted.

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It’s so strange to think that the first leg of our trip is over, but now we’re ready for our trip to China!

Posted by ShaunYardley 00:27 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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