Sunday, 28 June 2009

Chiang Mai

Back in Thailand and it's very weird to be back. An 8 hour (estimated 5) journey from the border and im back where I was 5 months ago. It think it's overly weird because I know it's nearly the end of my trip and the fact i've been here before, somehow wishing it was somewhere new. I am only here for one full day this side of E.N.P - which I definitely am looking forward to - and because it's a Sunday I get to explore the once-a-week Sunday Market for the penultimate time to stock up on carved wooden bowls, cheesy t-shirts, baggy pants and fancy jewellery. You know, stuff I like.

I will be gone for a week so unfortunately will miss Mr. Havell's and Mr. Hornsby's birthdays so hope you have good ones, I know how much my international birthday greetings go down, especially with a personal photograph. Perhaps a carved wooden bowl will make up for it (?).

I will return with a mere 4 days till home time, scary. Goodbye for now. X


In regular sized, not so prominent letters. Old country, same map. X

Mekong. You Jane?

My day started with the stealing of a cushion (bad credit at the bank of Karma) because i've heard the slow boats are pretty uncomfortable. Turns out was an unnecessary steal because the boat had some pretty decent ones and the journey was relatively comfortable, all 8 hours of it, twice, over 2 days. It was definitely a nice journey, most folk travel the opposite way from Houayxai (Thai/Laos border) down to Luang Prabang so our boat wasn't even half full - in a good way. The scenery was nice but what you saw in the first hour was what you saw the entire journey, like an old Scooby Doo cartoon where the background would be repeated over and over as Velma & Shaggy were being chased. It was all forested verges (I have never used that word before) and jagged rocks with no real "views", but there was some nice erm, "views" down the river as it flowed from the occasional mountainous horizon - nice at sunset all you sunset fans. I spent the majority of my time a little engrossed in 2 good books which made time flow by, but still never neglecting the fact I was on a nice boat travelling on the Mekong, otherwise I might aswell have just got the bus.

So day one was from Luang Prabang to a small hillside town called Pakbeng, the halfway stop off point for all slow boats going either way along the Mekong. Nothing there, just the usual tourist catering facilities what with them being the only source of daily income. To stay more than one day would be a waste, unless you were some sort of Opium addict, dont think i've been offered it so many times on such a short road in such a remote place before. I later found out whilst sitting with some Irish guys from the boat - because it happened to them in Vang Viang - that it's a $600 fine for having a single puff on a joint. Still, better than life imprisonment I suppose.

So day two was from Pakbeng to Houayxai and dare I say it, "same same but different". It was the first day on repeat on a less comfortable - in terms of seat stability - boat but as before, my head was in a book. I did put 2 benches together though to make a little seating trough so actually turned out alright. Journey was another 8 or so hours and we spent the night in Houayxai, just across the Mekong from Thailand. In the morning (as in yesterday) I bumped into the boat gang - 7 of us - and we passed through the most relaxed, unofficial, rustic border crossing i've crossed in Asia. Stamp, boat over to the otherside, stamp and away. Not forgetting a little temperature reading via my ear on the Thai side for suspected Swine Flu symptoms. I did leave thinking i'd missed something, another booth or whatever but no, that was it.

Hello Baht (again), you confuse me. X

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Vang Viang

Disgustingly touristy, full of English people, all drunk and watching re-run after re-run of 'Friends' in every cafe, bar & restaurant. This town is like Ibiza and is overrun with mouthy 17 year olds on their first holiday without mummy or daddy. Seriously, wtf? And the weird thing is, i've known that all along but felt compelled to see it with my own eyes. Conclusion: Yes, every part is true. Hello the company of annoyance.

The 2 days I was there I rented a motorbike and explored the surrounding countryside - a strange juxtaposition because whilst the town is shit, the surrounding scenery is really great (lots of jagged mountains) - and also did some caving. The caves were really deep (100m+) and with the help of a guide he led me through, except in one cave where you had to wade neck high through water (I was totally unprepared - flips flops, jeans, iPod, non-waterproof bag...) so had to turn back. I think I drove about 100km that day and really enjoyed myself - iPod on shuffle, wind in your face, beautiful landscape... If only I didn't have to return to depressing ville.

Ok now im not saying Vang Viang couldn't have been fun, with the right people it no doubt could have been great (our trekking group dispersed after Luang Prabang), I just wasn't in the mood for an 18-21 package holiday town because that's what it was. "Prude"... "Shhhh".

So now, im back in Luang Prabang (I say whilst kissing the pavement) and will be here for one day before getting a slow boat up the Mekong (takes 2 days) to a place called Houayxai, the Thai/Laos border crossing. By then it will be about the 27th and i'll be on route to Chaing Mai for the 29th. A plan. X

Luang Prabang

Despite my like of Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang for me was when Laos revealed itself. It's a really nice little town on the Mekong and is comparable in a lot of ways to Hoi An in Vietnam (another town I liked), a good mix of tourists and locals. Similar small, independent shops and old style architecture make for nice walkings, plus the daily night market is one of the best i've seen for non-tat tat. The people here are equally friendly, helpful & chilled out and serve in abundance baguettes, fruit shakes and great Laos coffee.

I spent my time exploring, visiting the Royal Palace, spending a day at the Kuang Si waterfall (beautiful, cascading, aquamarine - check the descriptive words - water with various levels of swimming and no swimming areas, plus a rope swing) and hanging out with guys who also headed South after trekking; namely Captain Leach, an English guy called Danny and my new travelling companions the Spanish. We have drunk many a Beer Lao, ventured to the local discotheque "Dao Fa" for a bit of a rave, partaken in some after hours bowling (the only place open post mid-night - a weird thing) and generally lounged about the night stalls and bars. I would say a good time has been had.

Luang Prabang, my new favourite place. Coffee anyone? X

Friday, 19 June 2009

Trekking in Luang Nam Tha

Easy to moderate? No. Moderate to hard? Yes.

Up high slopes, across rickety log bridges, slipping up and down mud slicked hills, navigating down a cascading waterfall, all in a torrential downpour beneath a thunderstorm... and all this before lunch. It was more wet than standing in a shower with your clothes on, and also a hell of a lot more fun. It was all about footholds and not slipping - the impossible. Lunch was a series of small piles (comparable to various types of vomit) spread out across banana leaves but it looked worse than it tasted. Thumbs up for sticky rice too.

Then came the leeches. I've never seen them like this, only the odd one before (probably due to the changing of the season), but these were everywhere. Somehow they just appear on you, finding the lace holes of your trainers and disappearing. No blood through socks but still. The worst though was experienced by a guy from Holland called Jaap who found 2 in his boxers, only noticing after they'd fallen off, swollen with his crotch blood. After that you couldn't help but have balls on the mind, the slightest itch or pain provoking an expection. Leeches are pretty harmless but everyone got a little freaked out by them but nobody got it like Jaap did, I just got 'em on the feet :)

The final descent down to the village was a mud slide but by that point nobody cared so we just went down on our arses (great fun) whilst the villagers looked on. At the bottom we crossed a river to many watching eyes, dumped our stuff on the bank and took a bath amongst the flowing current. After the heat of the afternoon and the struggles up and down mountains, it was an amazing reward. The village was very small in a bit of a valley and consisted of about 12 (?) wooden houses with lots of children, chickens, pigs and growling dogs scattered about. Everyone was very helpful & generous and whilst they prepared dinner, they made a camp fire for us and we sat around drying our clothes, wallets and cameras - my camera got another drowning in the rain (waterproof my bag is not) so I actually dont have any pictures pre-thunderstorm. Dinner was a little buffet with an amazing tomato soup, rice and buffalo meat, all eaten in the company of the village chief in his house. Sleeping arrangements were 2 to a house (there was 8 of us) where we slept under the roof with the locals.

Day 2 was nothing compared to the first, a few hills out of the village (hello humidity) and then it was pretty much path walking for 4 hours back to the road to be picked up by a tuk tuk. Along the way a lot of things explained about wildlife and plants, but I think everyone was so tired from day 1 that the easiness was welcomed.

Overall a great trek, almost on par with Bokor in Cambodia, weather and terrain definitely more varied. We had a good group of people (no annoying, hair braided, bracelet wearing, guitar playing, "woah maaan" speaking dickheads - left them at the guesthouse) and everyone had a good laugh. Kudos to the guides aswell because they were enjoying themselves just as much as we were.

Now I am in Luang Prabang after a 10 hour (which felt more like 6) bus ride yesterday. My camera has also been resurrected (again - possibly Holy) and the pictures I missed on the trek have been promised to me by the other guys. Im in Luang Prabang for 3 days before heading further South (by 5 hours or so) to Vang Viang. I will write you (probably). X

Happy Birthday (For Yesterday) Philip Morris

Philip Morris > Praying Mantis. X

Monday, 15 June 2009

Put Your Dong Away And Get Some Kip

So border crossing, not bad at all. Same as anywhere. I did cross at very remote point which all guide books say is closed to tourists so was very quiet and straight forward (no drugs here). The bus from Dien Bien Phu only went as far as a place called Muang Khoa (40km into Laos) so had to cross a river, then get a tuk tuk and finally a bus to town called Muang Xay (where I spent the night). The most annoying thing was I had no Laos money (Kip) and they didn't accept Vietnamese Dong (obviously) so had to rely on the kindness of 2 Spanish ladies and 1 Danish girl for cookies, crackers and a loan of Kip until we got to Muang Xay because due to the remoteness of the border crossing, there was no ATMs till then. Hooray for the kindness of travellers.

So this morning (along with the 2 Spanish ladies - I say "ladies" because they're over 30) came North-East to a place called Luang Nam Tha. The journey was only 4 hours but one thing i've known about Laos is it's a long bus ride between most places (sometimes a day) so 4 hours was nothing. Does take more than a few days out of your itinerary though just in transport, not good when you only have 2 weeks - it's a big country and I dont think i'll make it South. Anyway, Luang Nam Tha, a town in the mountains and a hub for trekking the remote villages - the reason it's become such a popular spot. Tomorrow im doing a 2 day trek to a village called Nam La where you stay overnight with a minority family so should be fun. Luang Nam Tha itself is literally just one road lined with a few guesthouses and shops so if you're not trekking you're not doing anything.

Everyone says (guidebook included - which I dont have) that Laos people are very chilled out - hello my new favourite country - but as of yet I haven't really experienced it. To be honest it still feels like im in Vietnam because of the mountain surroundings (i.e. Sa Pa) but everyone so far has been really friendly. I would say less smiley & wavey than the other 3 countries but im making that judgement with not much evidence.

After Luang Nam Tha im heading South to a place called Luang Prabang, an apparently beautiful town with a very impressive waterfall. Im interested because I have seen a million waterfalls. We post again on... Wednesday? (wtf day is it?) so there you go, something to look forward to. Im off to be given many a strange look but it's all normal to me now. Bye X


In big-ish prominent letters. New country, no map. X

Friday, 12 June 2009

Sa Pa

Unbelievable. The most impressive place in Vietnam. It's strange how after 5 months of Asia you can still be impressed. It's mountains and valleys, carved with fields of crops like green steps. Every photo is a postcard.

I didn't do any trekking here although it's a big reason people come. Instead, along with 2 guys I met on the Ha Long Bay trip, rented motorbikes and did two days of exploring. Although saying that I did do a three hour trek to Cat Cat village the first day I got here. It was a proper descend through the clouds job along a winding road which slowly revealed the friendly farming community stretched out across the valley. G for Glorious (probably).

Tomorrow im going to a town South called Dien Bien Phu for one night before heading across the border to Laos at some point on Sunday. I hear horror stories about the border crossing to Laos (i.e a million hours) but Valium in hand, it will hopefully be a blur.

This is one of those short posts. I am on the beer. X

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Hello Free Internet

So you're probably wondering what im doing after Vietnam being that my visa ends on the 14th and I dont fly home till July 10th? Well, gather round children for I have a story to tell...

For whatever reason when I planned this trip I didnt really know how I was getting from Vietnam back to Bangkok. I guess I thought I was just going to fly. But if you get out your atlases and globes you'll see there's a big ol' country called Laos inbetween Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. These 4 countries are like the South East Asia "circuit" which travellers navigate one way or the other - why I didnt learn this before hand I dont know. Anyway, after Vietnam im heading to Laos for 2 weeks so you'll have to draw up your own maps (family only) to keep track (if you so wish). What I do know of Laos is it's beautiful, chilled out and less touristy than the other 3. Oh, and something a few people talk about called "tubing"...? (sarcasm). I haven't even picked up a guidebook yet because i've almost accumulated my own through recommendations of others. 2 weeks in Laos and 10 days in Thailand boys and girls.

Also, you know people say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world? I didn't believe this until 2 days ago when I consecutively met Dan (Mumford) and Mark (Pavey) in the guise of a guy called Alex and a guy called Oliver in Hanoi. Seriously weird stuff - mannerisms, faces and personalities all included. Me? Im apparently the spitting image of Doug Buck from Watford. This paragraph does not do the encounter justice. X

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

If ever a capital city didn't feel like a capital city, it's Hanoi. The bus journey from Hoi An took about 16 hours but it was a sleeper bus so was basically a dormitory of bunk beds on wheels, pretty comfortable (despite the sub-zero temperatures of the air con) and I slept all the way.

Hanoi is a busy, cramped place where one street is hard to differentiate from another due to the old, run down nature of the buildings. It's a pretty big city too being divided (as most Vietnamese cities are) into districts - or Quarters as they're known here. I was staying in whats known as the 'Old Quarter' - it's the backpacking area in the middle of the city - but I think there was definitely more to explore. I say that because I only actually spent one full day in Hanoi because of how comparatively pushed for time I am in the North. Even so, I wouldn't say I fell in love with Hanoi, maybe if i'd spent a few more days exploring my opinion would have changed, but as it was I didnt feel there was much more to see. There was a good energy about Hanoi with lots of travellers and street side 'Bia Hoi' bars (serving 4,000 Dng beer - that's about 15p!) so it was a great city for meeting people. I was staying at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel where even though the dorm rooms were as much as single rooms elsewhere, you were really paying for the atmosphere and ease of meeting folks.

Anyway, so after one day I booked (through the hostel) to go on a 3 days/2 nights trip to Ha Long Bay, 3 hours West on the coast - was apparently in that Top Gear special. We spent the first day and night on a really nice boat cruising between the 2000 islands of the bay and also did some canoeing through some of the bays caves. There was about 24 of us and everyone got on well, we were somewhere between being a crazy 'jumping off the boat' party crowd and chilled out 'I wanna relax' crowd which everyone decided was a good thing. I was one of 2 people who spent the night sleeping on deck (even though the cabins were really nice) under the full moon and stars, surrounded by the silhouettes of pointy peninsulas because it seemed silly not to considering the location. The 5am sunrise got a thumbs up.

On the second day we went to an island called Cat Ba where we did a small trek up to a seriously rickety view point over the jungle, an easy task if not for the 37 degree heat and lack of shade. It was also not the best trek (if you can call it that) because half the climb was concrete stairs and the amount of people + the lack of any wildlife made it feel like a tourist trap. The view, not to sound dismissive, was one I felt I'd seen many times before, but I dont think they ever really get boring. The rest of the day was free time to either relax, chillout on the beach (with a million Vietnamese people) or to explore the island by bike. In the evening everyone rendezvoused for dinner and before sitting curbside at a few local bars. Was an ok day but a good night :)

The 3rd day was spent back on the boat travelling back to Ha Long City before getting the bus back to Hanoi which wasn't exactly activity overload, but cruising on the boat was always the best bit anyway. The only downside to a trip like this was how organised and planned everything was, sometimes feeling like a lazy package holiday which is something im totally not used to. Luckily the people I met made up for it so it turned out to be a pretty good trip, Ha Long Bay is indeed a very nice place. You should go.

So this is where i've been up until yesterday when I got a night bus North-West to Sa Pa (where I write this) right in the heart of the mountains. I dont have much to say about it yet except it seems really nice. It's a hub of minority villages so everywhere are colourful outfits and happy people, but it's also mixed with a good percentage of travellers and bars. Tomorrow 2 of the people I met on the Ha Long Bay trip are coming here so we're going to explore the mountains and villages on motorbikes for a few days.

Da Lat, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay & Sa Pa. Yes. X

Friday, 5 June 2009

Hoi An

Along with Da Lat, Hoi An is one of my favourite places i've visited in Vietnam (so far). It's little town on the river which basically comprises of just 3 main streets (with lanes branching off) but has character and charm aplenty, no modern, highrise or office buildings here. It's an historical and very rustic place where all the architecture is heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese designs (16th century so says my guidebook) and in a lot of ways it feels like an old European city such as Venice (not that i've been). All the shops - and there are many - are all independent retailers specialising in tailoring, silks, shoes and art - all of which can be custom fitted and made to your specifications. There's also the usual souvenir shops but the stuff here isn't half as tacky as i've seen previous places. Believe me you could spend ALOT of money here, but only alot in a Vietnamese way, it's all still much cheaper than the UK.

The people here are also very friendly & helpful and i've enjoyed eating by the river in the very social surroundings of the market. I've also indulged in some of the local specialities such as Cau Lau (flavoursome noodles with pork) and Wonton (crackers with shrimp and vegetables in a tangy sauce) -both of which come recommended. Also yesterday for something they call "The Heritage Journey" festival, Miss Universe (I kid you not - she's apparently Vietnamese) was paraded through the streets of Hoi An followed by an army of classic VW Beetles, campervans and Vespas'. T'was pretty cool, wouldn't have been out of place in somewhere like Brighton - give or take Miss Universe.

So I say if you ever come to Vietnam and you're short on time, the only places you need visit are Da Lat and Hoi An, with a possibly a few days in Ho Chi Minh and Can Tho. The North I have yet to see but im leaving on a bus today to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam so we shall see.

Tom Havell, suited and booted. X

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Easy Riders

You cannot leave (or infact 'see') Vietnam without doing the Easy Rider tour, it was capital A awesome.

The journey: Da Lat > Lak Lake > Buon Ma Thout > Plei Ku > Dak To > Kham Duc > P'rao > Hoi An.

I have seen waterfalls like Niagra.
I have seen breathtaking valleys and fields.
I have seen green.
I have travelled on winding roads through lush mountains.
I have visited tiny minority villages where white people dont venture.
I have seen proper rural life with communities living off the land.
I have seen the scarred landscape of the war.
I have seen remnants of ex-American military bases and weapons.
I have visited silk, wine, coffee, pepper, latex and tea plantations.
I have visited and seen places not even listed in my guidebook.
I have enjoyed sunshine, mist and epic thunderstorms.
I have been propositioned with offers of daughters and sisters.
I have become addicted to coffee.
I have broken down in the middle of nowhere.
I have seen a thousand smiles and waving hands.
I have welcomed Vietnam's hot showers after 5 months of cold ones.
I have enjoyed breakfast, lunch & dinner with the locals.
I have seen the real Vietnam.

I will however say this: The trip is good because it's 7 days with a guide but the trip is also bad because it's 7 days with a guide. Stefan was a little difficult and was a bit of a headache sometimes (especially because I couldnt communicate with anyone else) but as the days went on we gained more of an understanding and by day 5 we had become pretty good friends - the riding inbetween stops was always king though despite any annoyances, my driver could have been Kerry Katona (ha) and it still wouldn't have mattered. Stefan is a war veteran who has had a very difficult life so I always respected him but I guess it's just natural to get annoyed by people you spend 15 hours a day with. Like I said, now we are good friends and even now in Hoi An I still meet him for a drink. He's on the lookout for a client to travel back down to Da Lat with so is also staying here a few days.

Cant believe it's June 3rd! Got so much to see in Vietnam before my visa runs out on the 14th, in hindsight I regret spending so much time in the Mekong. Nevertheless, onewards and upwards. X