Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Laos - Second Chances...

Laos is the second country I had been to on my short travels last year.  I was having adverse reactions to my anti-malarials (something I will avoid this year by not taking any, probably much to the chagrin of one avid reader of these pages who is just finding this out) and was frankly not in a mental or physical state to fully enjoy myself.  Coming in from Northern Vietnam and heading to Northern Thailand, I knew I would be covering the same ground as last year, missing out the 4000 Islands near the Cambodian border in the south.

We start the journey in Hanoi, as yet another crazy ass Vietnamese border shenanigans must be related. I was picked up from the hostel by a moped, who's driver proceeded to weave through the Hanoi rush hour traffic with me & my bags on the back, whilst having a nice (or so I assume) chat on his mobile.  I was still not fully over the effects of the crash going into Hue & I was to say the least a tad nervy for the few - but too many - minutes I spent on the back of his bike.  I was deposited by the side of the road & he went off in search of other people for the bus.  Having collected us, he then left again, leaving us wondering what was going on, until he came back with a taxi.  Most confusing as we were expecting a sleeper bus.  We all piled in, with no idea of what was going on & were eventually taken to the bus station..  That turned out to be the easy bit.  Aslo the nicest as, while I the bunks were small as usual, I somehow bagged the entire back row of 5 beds to myself!  We were rudely awoken at 6am by the bus driver telling us to get off so we could go through immigration.  Apparently the bus had stopped at the border 3 hours earlier, but as it was closed had to wait.  So we went in search of food.  Or rather, everyone else did as I had changed all my Vietnamese Dong into US$ in Hanoi (apart from some I would later find in the pocket of some shorts.  Grrr....).  An hour later we were finally allowed to leave Vietnam but not before their final surprise. The border guards, clearly low on petty cash for snacks and knowing that, stuck miles from anywhere, we were in no position to argue, demanded 1$ before they would even acknowledge our existence.  As anyone who has worked with me knows, I'm not very good in this sort of situation.  There was some mild remonstrations between myself and 2 other English Lads, Matt & Martin with the guards, mounting to the fact that we had paid our visa fees and they had no legal backing for this action.  Even our bus driver was not willing to help and just waved our complaints away. We eventually gave in, paid, watched the cash go into a drawer, and walked to a nicer man who checked we had indeed had our passports stamped. The worst thing was, this was our last impression of Vietnam - police corruption and wanting to squeeze everything out of Western travellers.  I acknowledge that we are in a better state financially than the majority of people living over here, but we are not here to be scammed.  We are not walking dollar signs.  We have no income while we are here.  And, most importantly, we do not want our experiences of a wonderful country sullied by a couple of greedy officials.  Then insult was rubbed into injury and we were made to walk over the hill through no mans land to Laos, leaving our bags on the bus.  We spent easily half an hour getting our visas done, and I'm sure they managed to scam another dollar out of us for stamping the visa, before the worst bit happened.  We walked out of the immigration building to find... no bus.  We assumed it was just delayed behind us so waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After an hour we started to get a bit concerned so raised a query with the Laos border guards.  Who merely either ignored us or laughed at us.  Anyone who's worked with me see where this is going?  Yup.  I got a bit mad.  It's just as well they spoke little or no English, as shouting in a government officials face that you're going to throw him in a gorge if he doesn't find out what is going on may get you into a spot of bother.  I was ashamed of my response to the situation, or rather the lack of assistance being given.  I thought this part of me was gone.  Still work to do...  A couple of Ukrainians on the bus walked back through no mans and to see what was happening & came back to divulge that the bus was still in Vietnam being searched by customs due to lack of papers for cargo being transported by locals.  This calmed the situation & we waited for the bus.  Finally, 2 & 1/2 hours after entering Laos, the bus turned up and we continued to Vientiane.  From door to door the journey took 24 hours.  I had not eaten in longer than that and was starved.  It was a great burger that night!

And so I started my first real Vientiane experience.  I was only here for 4 hours last year while I got a train to Thailand.  This time I had to sort out my visa for Thailand.  As a British citizen I would have a 30 day pass into Thailand, but I want to stay here for quite a while, and go into Myanmar.  So I decided to get full visa with double entry. On the first morning I walked to the Thai Embassy, was redirected to the Thai Consulate, filled my forms in and waited to be processed.  At this point I realized that, despite my research, I needed Thai Baht to pay or my visa ans not US dollars which I had changed all my spare money into, so I got it all changed into Baht at a stupid rate.  Then I found out that I had to pay 1000B per entry. I did not have enough due to the 'exchange rate'.  Thankfully a Dutch guy lent me the money so I could pay and collect my passport the next day.  I never did get his name, but thanks!

My first tourist event was the COPE Centre.  Laos as a major issue with un-exploded ordinance (UXO) from the Vietnam War when USA bombed the country as possible route from Russia to Vietnam in an attempt to stop the flow of weapons to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.  As a result Laos became the most heavily bombed country in history.  Amongst other weaponry, 240 million cluster bombs were dropped on the countryside.  The impact on the farming culture was devastating.  Unfortunately the effects are still being felt.  Cluster bombs have a 30% failure rate, so approximately 80 million remained on the ground following the war.  They are often activated by farming activity or by mistaken as toys by local children, resulting in serious injury and death.  Worse still are the mines and other ordinance that was dropped.  Scrap metal brings a healthy price, and often the danger is considered worth the risk.  COPE was created to assist families who have lost loved ones and people who have lost limbs.  They provide assistance, prosthetics and aid to the families in what is an ongoing problem.

The next day we were offered a fee 'Mystery Tour' to a waterfall by the hostel.  They wanted to see if it would work as a day trip in the future.  They were sure we would be back in time for buses that had been booked & for me to collect my passport.  This was not to be.  What was thought to be a 40 minute drive to the waterfall was 3 hours.  On the final drive through the forest the tuk tuk was unable to go up one of the hills with 15 people in the back (plus 2 in the front & 1 on the roof), slid back down the hill and reversed into a ditch.  It was not difficult to extricate the tuk tuk from the ditch, but we did have to walk up every hill from then on. But it was worth it.  The waterfall was beautiful and tranquil and we played in it for hours until hunger set in & we headed back (walking up the hills again) .

On the way back a couple of American girls, Whitney and Jessica, started talking about a burger they had eaten the previous night near the hostel.  Apparently it was the best burger ever.  The gauntlet had been laid down.  We had to test this burger.  Rather than head for the shower when we got back to the hostel, we piled out of the tuk tuk & went straight to Ray's Grill.  The bacon cheese burger did not disappoint.  Perfectly seasoned and moist it may well have been the best burger I have ever had (and the Philly Cheese Steak I had the next day was incredible!).  Whitney & Jessica got to live another day...

Which for me meant going to the consulate to get my passport back, while everyone else went to Vang Vieng - party central.  I took the opportunity to walk around Vientiane and just let myself be absorbed b it, something I did not have chance to do before.  It really is a nice city, complete with a fake Arc de Triomphe!  It has quite a European feel.  Wide boulevards and avenues mix with a pleasing way.  I am glad I got to see this city properly.

A quick bus journey the next morning got me to Vang Vieng.  I had only spent 1 day here before, and it did not end well.  Thats's all you need to know.  It is a backpackers haven.  Lots of cheap hostels, cheap bars showing endless repeats of Friends (although I did find one that showed South Park one night!), cheap drugs.  The main attraction is tubing - travelling down the river in an inner tube, stopping at the frequent bars to drink & party, before floating on again.  They had problems previously due to the number of bars - over 20 in a just  few miles.  Obviously alcohol and inner tubes doesn't mix well and there were many deaths.  Add into that rope swings and slides into waters to shallow and fast and something had to be done.  There are now 4 bars (if you count the last one, which most don't) and the tube has to be back at one of the 2 tubing centres by 6pm, when it gets dark, or you lose your deposit.  But it was not my intention to tube, but instead to see what else Vang Vieng had to offer.  From talking to Whitney & Jessica they were interested in climbing and so we had made a loose agreement to do a 3 day climbing course.  I just had o find them.

 I bumped into them straight off the bus while trying to find my hostel.  They had a tuk tuk for the day and we decided to check out the Blue Lagoon, a general chill out area a bit out of town based around a deep pool with a cave system nearby.  And here I found my greatest discovery - Cerin!  I had barely seen him since Hoi An and it was great to catch up.  We went into the caves and had a great time playing drums on the stalactites in the dark.  These were not the safest of caves - no walkways or ropes, just signs advising of deep death filled holes.  Health & safety clearly not a priority!  Cerin was actually leaving the next day, but at least we were on the same route.

Day 1 of climbing was easyish.  This was the first time I had climbed outside.  It is very different to an indoor wall.  Firstly, stone hurts more when you fall.  Secondly the holds are not colour coded.  You have to find the ones which feel best, which give the best platforms for the next move.  Also the holds are not nice and moulded - rough, sharp limestone cliffs welcomed us.  The morning was spent top-roping - straight climbing with someone holding the rope below (the belayer).  The afternoon stepped things up - we were lead roping.  Here you climb but take the rope with you.  You are only safe when you attach the rope to the clips on the wall.  Fall here and it's a 6 foot drop or more.

The worst is when you get to the top.  Despite the safety rope you clip yourself to the cliff with, it goes against all human nature to untie your rope at the top of a cliff.  Drop the rope and you're stuck.  But after 2 days of this it became normal.  We slowly got better.  But the fear never leaves you.  Even an experienced climber told me on the last day that he still had moments of doubt when he was climbing, just overthinking things and giving himself doubts.  He likened good climbing to Yoga.  You have to meditate on the wall and become calm.  I do understand this.  Only climbing can I truly empty my mind of all other things.  I just need to make the next step...

I was aware that I was quite verbal while climbing.  How bad this got became apparent on the second day.  We were joined by Kate, Maddy & Jenny.  Maddy later told me that my continuous expletives kept her calm as she felt that if someone more experienced was having trouble, then she was probably doing OK!

After 2 days of this we took a break.  Not sure what to do with myself I wandered into town for breakfast & ran into Kate.  The decision was made to go tubing with Maddy & Jenny. So we headed off to collect our tubes, jumped into a tuk tuk & went to the launch site. It was vastly different from last year.  Only 1 bar remained from the 4 which made up the first 100m.  There is no sign that the first 2 bars ever existed.  I didn't even get past the third bar before (now the first) but we gave it a miss altogether this time & ventured into new territory.  It is a very peaceful experience to float down a river in an inner tube in the sun, taking in the scenery and having a chat.

After about 10 minutes the second bar turned up.  A line is thrown out to haul  you into shore and the drinking commences.  We stayed a few hours enjoying the ambiance, playing volleyball and boules, and laughing at people who were taking there drinking much more seriously.  We made sure we left early enough to make it back to town while it was still light and proceeded to paddle furiously to make sure we did.  It was a relief when a face appeared above me to say I had made it, followed by a mad rush back to the tubing centre to get my deposit back!

After a nice, relaxing day, it was back to business.  Day 3 of the climbing course stepped things up - lead roping much harder climbs needing new skills to navigate the cliffs and a lesson in abseiling.  I had done this as part of the canyoning in Vietnam, but that was starting from the top of the cliff.  Here they taught us how to use your rope from lead climbing to abseil from the top of the climb.  Again, very nervy.  The teachers told us about a couple who were doing this in America - and dropped the rope.  They were stuck on the cliff for 3 hours until someone came down & could help them.  The possibility kind of stays in your mind while your trying to sort the ropes out, but feeling when you get it right and descend the cliff is fantastic!

And that was it for Vang Vieng.  The next morning I headed up to Luang Prabang with Maddy & Jenny.  I had had a lot of fun here last year and had pretty much done most of the things worth doing.  What I hadn't done was trek through the jungle and rice paddies to the Kuang Xi waterfalls.  And it wasn't this time either at $47 each!  So, after spending a well needed day off (travelling can be exhausting if you don't stop now and again!), I headed out to the waterfalls with Maddy, Whitney & Jessica (who had come up on a later bus) on mountain bikes.  I would prefer a proper off-road route, but a 72km round trip was exercise enough, with a couple of long hills that nearly had us walking. But the waterfall at the end is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

A 3-tier waterfall opens into a series of turquoise pools, the water cascading down.  The water was very cold, and full of little fish which like to nibble your feet (even mine...) and perfectly refreshing after the bike ride. Just the problem of the ride back...  Which I had to do sooner than wished as I was booked on to a cooking class with Ciren. After failing to do one in Vietnam I was determined to do one here, even if it meant going hell for leather in stupid temperatures. I only just made it, but it was worth the rush.  They actually allowed us to cook our food here, as opposed to the course in Phonm Pehn.  The dishes were a revelation.  I had not been to keen on Laos cuisine from last time but found it to be generally quite good when I had eaten it this time.  But these courses were something else.  The fish steamed in bamboo leaves was sensational, a bit like the Cambodian Amok but without the coconut milk. And the chicken stuffed in lemongrass was delicious and took some skill to get right.  Along with a starter and the obligatory sticky rice (Laos style) this was a great meal, but the courses own chefs had been working hard to create even more dishes - pumpkin salad and buffalo laap, a Laos specialty of minced buffalo, mint and basil and very tasty.  This made quite a feast for us all and set a very high standard for future classes!

We had a couple of options for how to get to our next stop - Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Either an 23 hour bus journey or a slow boat up the Mekong which would take us 2 & 1/2 days to arrive in Chiang Mai.  The choice was easy - scenery, relaxation and  new experience won out.  We had heard about this trip from people coming the other way. And we found there was a reason for this.  Going in our direction we were going against the current - resulting in a 9 hour boat journey each day.  But we got to sleep, read (a lot) and just enjoy the relaxed life.

Finding accommodation each night was a bit stressful as everyone goes in search of rooms at the same time and most places are full from people coming the other way from Thailand as those boats get in earlier and nowhere can be pre-booked.  The second night, at the border town of Huay Xai was particularly bad due to lack of rooms and also not knowing where we had to go the next day - the drop off point for the slow boat turned out to be a long way from the boat that would eventually take us over the river to Thailand the next morning, which itself we did not know where it was.  After inquiring at several guesthouses and with tempers fraying (not mine, actually) we finally found what could be classed as clean, serviceable accommodation.  For one night it was fine.  Especially when we found out the next morning that it was just around the corner from the Laos check out post & the cross border ferry...

But that's Thailand.  And therefore a different chapter.  Which I'm still living.  So you'll have to wait.  I'll give you a sneak preview though - I've not been doing much!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Party In Vietnam

Sitting in the room at Hanoi Backpackers I have a few hours before I depart to Laos to look back on the last four weeks.  It has most definitely not been what I expected, from the country to myself.

Becky & I left Kampot on an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, if you prefer, which I may as it's shorter) via Phnom Penh.  Generally uneventful until the most bizarre of border crossings.  Our passports were taken off us at Phnom Penh so that the exit stamps could be done, but we still had to get them back to go through Cambodian border control.  They were then collected again while we went through no-mans-land (all of 50m) to the Vietnam immigration control for stamping.  Which was done en masse.  And then the passports handed back out by the guards shouting our names out at which point we could then collect them.  This would be acceptable if we could hear and understand the guards pronunciations of our names and get through the throng of people from three buses. This took the best part of an hour.  Why we couldn't just queue like civilized people is beyond me...

The first thing I noticed about Saigon was the scooters and motorbikes.  They are everywhere.  There are 10 million people living in Saigon and there are 6 millions bikes.  And they seem to be on the road at the same time, all the time.  Having experienced Indian traffic I was not as overcome with fear as others we met, probably because the use of the horn is not as constant and 90% of the traffic is the same size.  Saying that, crossing the road is like playing real life Frogger.  You wait for a gap, step into the road and just keep going.  They will usually try to avoid you but a bit of dodging helps, especially as you can never quite tell what speed they're all going at.  As with India though, it's scary how quickly you find this to be completely normal behaviour for how to cross the road.

We quickly got in touch with Niall who had got here a couple of days earlier and after a long catch up headed off to the War Remnants Museum (formally the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression).  We got here a bit late for a full visit but went straight to the top floor where there is a photo exhibition of views from both sides by independent photo journalists.  They show not only actions carried out by both sides during the war, but also the after affects of Agent Orange on the innocent Vietnamese people and how the country has tried to rebuild itself.  While is was interesting to see the story of the war from the Vietnamese side, this was by no means unbiased and did not cover the treatment of the US soldiers by the Viet Cong.  Nor did it really cover the difficulties of the country by having a South Vietnam Army fighting alongside the US Army against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  I found the waste of human life, especially that of the innocent bystanders and of the photographers that lost their lives documenting such a pointless war, overwhelming.  I am also amazed that the French, who effectively started the whole thing by refusing to allow Vietnam independence and asking America for assistance, has got out of this unscathed.

I continued my history lesson the next day with a tour of the Cu Chi Village tunnels.  This is a complex of 200km of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid out of sight of the US Army that was practically on top of them.  It is 2 hours away from Saigon and the nearest US base was just a grenades throw away.  Our guide had been in the South Vietnam Army and admitted that it was difficult to fight against his countrymen and women (and in some cases children), a task made even more difficult as the VC did not have a uniform and could have been anyone (an issue which led to the US Army deciding that anyone could be VC and therefore open to interrogation, torture and murder).  The tour took us through part of the old tunnels (very small and dark - I didn't go in - one wrong turn and you may never be seen again), some of the booby traps made to defend the site from attack (very grizzly use of pits and rotating spikes) and a crawl through  revamped section of tunnel, which while wider than it was originally was still claustrophobic, hot and short of air.

Even given the measures taken to guard these tunnels, the entrances were often found and the US forces often had battles underground.  Bodies are apparently still being found when foundations are built for new houses.  What was most grizzly though was at the souvenir shop.  For sale were old bullet casings and worse - Zippo's left behind by the dead GI's and found in the tunnels still with regiment insignia but now with added 'Cu Chi Tunnel' logos.  Yours for just $4!

Evenings in Saigon were spent in the backpacker area, and generally at just a couple of local bars, sat on small plastic stools outside a shop drinking cheap beer (and even cheaper home brew) devouring whatever food was on the nearest stalls, generally meat skewers and Banh Mi - the Vietnamese delicacy of a bread roll filled with pate, sliced meat, salad and sauce.  Delicious.  It was also interesting to see how many people were doing the same route as us (south to north) and who we had met already in Cambodia, while getting tips off the people who were coming from the north.  My biggest shock was running into a South African guy I'd met in Beijing a month earlier!  The world gets ever smaller...

We finally left Saigon to go to Mui Ne, a coastal resort.  This was to be my first experience of a sleeper bus.  They are clearly made for locals as the beds are way to small.  t took 2 hours of a 5 hours of a 5 hour journey to find a comfortable position.  And we were travelling during the day so this wasn't even needed.

Mui Ne is a nice place, and I could have spent much more than the 2 nights we did, but we knew that we had to see all of the country and some highlights lay in store in the north.  We got to celebrate Becky's birthday with a trip to the sand dunes and an ostrich ride (not a natural animal to ride), finishing off at a Russian pool/techno party.

Then it was another 5 hour journey to Da Lat, the honeymoon centre of Vietnam.  I can understand why.  It is a very picturesque city in the mountains with some stunning scenery.  Apparently.  It was raining most of the time we were there, but thankfully dry for the time we spent canyoning.  This is an amazing sport - use any means necessary to get down a river, preferably one with waterfalls - abseiling, jumping, water slides, trek or just float.  I am not happy with water at the best of times, so abseiling down a waterfall before having to make a 5 metre drop into the pool did test me.  Not as much as slowly descending into the chute of a waterfall, being buffeted by the torrent before it sweeps you through its currents and spits you out the other side.  All I can say is that fears were faced that day and I want to do it again!

By this time our group was starting to swell with people going in the same direction, and by the time we made it to Nha Trang we were 8.  Nha Trang is the Russian Costa Brava.  Built up with hotels for the Russians to stay in, backpacker hotels and bars are kept at the other end of the city.  Russian influence can be seen in the island turned into a theme park by a Russian billionaire - Vinpearl Land!  Complete with the longest over-water cable car in the world being the only way to get there.  A day there was great fun though - they have a water park with everything you would expect, plus an arcade and fun fair.  The highlight was the railed toboggan run down the hillside.

As you would expect from this kind of resort, copious drinking is encouraged at in the evenings.  So we did, and with the bars always offering free shots, half price buckets of stupidly strong but actually quite nice cocktails, and any other offer they can think of to keep you at their place we started to hit a nice tempo for life in Vietnam.  And the best way to recover from the hangover you have the net day is a mud bath with a mineral spa and an afternoon lazing in a gloriously warm pool.

 Almost didn't want to leave, but after a couple of days were off up the road to Hoi An, this time a 14 hour overnight bus ride - the longest so far.  I had the top bunk in the middle aisle and barely got any sleep for fear of falling out onto the unsuspecting people who the bus driver had crammed into the walkways below.

It was strange to arrive in Hoi An at 8:30am with the hole day ahead of us.  Arrival was normally late afternoon at the earliest and just time to have dinner and hit the bar.  But an early arrival gave time for sightseeing and in Hoi An that mianly means getting a suit made.  I didn't as am traveling for a year and needed the money in the bank, and I did not see it likely I would need a 3-piece suit on the road, but looking at some of the guys suits, in any style they liked, any material inside and out I was a bit jealous.  The tailors in Hoi An can replicate anything - form suits and dresses to trainers and shoes.  Just point at what you want in a catalogue, ad your own embellishments and 24 hours later you will have 3 suits for about $300.  I, on the otherhand, got to chill out in a much calmer city, cycle out to the beach and mentally prepare for what was about to happen.

On arriving in Hoi An we found that a lot of people had got there a day before us and met up with others they had met previously.  So this is how our merry band became 19 - me, Becky, Emily, Natalie, Michele, Adrian, Sam (who had all done the canyoning), Niall, Orlagh, Grace, Rachel, Karl, Dave, Gary, Harrison, Sosa, Danielle, Ryan & George.  And just in time for Niall's birthday.  And what did Niall want to do?  Hire scooters and ride the 132km along the coast to Hue through some outstanding scenery.  There were 2 issues for a few of us - we had never ridden a scooter (I don't even drive), so a hasty 1 hour lesson was provided to see if we would be capable.  Some decided to get a local to ride with them as passenger, and Becky and I decided to share a rider so we could both get some time in charge. The second issue was slightly bigger - Typhoon Nari was heading towards the Vietnam coast and was due to make landfall in Hue just as we were expected to get there.  A nervous night lay ahead as we decided whether we would go ahead with this at all, a decision made more difficult when we woke to the early signs of a tropical storm.  But a couple of hours later the sun was coming out and the wind had died down, so Team Nari hit the road.  And it wasn't long until the cross winds started to pick up & the tropical storm started again.  I was happy on the scooter, but the technical issue of my helmet flying backwards forced me to swap with Becky.  Even after getting it fixed Becky stayed on the scooter, a decision which may not have been the best when she got lost in Da Nang.  She kept her head though, found a hotel to call our hostel in Hoi An to get the guides to go and find her.  Sam, however, did not have this idea when he also got lost.  With no call to the guides we had no option other than to ride on into the storm.  On the Hai Van Pass I swapped with Karl who was not comfortable riding in these conditions (a first timer like myself) and so I rode up the pass in convoy in reducing visibilty, having to overtake a tanker when I could only just see the other end of it & only knowing that there were no lights coming towards me.  We made it to the top of the pass, visibility about 20 feet, and had a quick stop.  I thought we would stop until the cloud had cleared but as we had to make it to Hue before the full typhoon hit we only had a short stop - long enough though to see Sam ride through the cloud to rejoin us in a moment of triumph - it would seem that nothing would stop us getting to Hue in one piece.

The descent was precarious with still limited visibility and the rain lashing down like needles in the face.  Even with glasses on I could barely see the bike ahead, let alone the road.  And then, with about 60km to go, having made it through the worst of the ride, if not yet the weather, the inevitable happened.  Baring in mind that Vietnamese drivers only think bout themselves when their driving, I was faced with a 4x4 overtaking a tanker, fully on my side of the road.  I had riders to my right so could not move back into line, my only course of action to slow as much as possible and aim for the gap between the car and my friends.  An emergency stop was still needed.  I missed the car but the back end fishtailed and went over.  I took the full brunt of the impact of the handlebars in my stomach but somehow managed to roll clear with just a couple of knocks to my knees.  My stomach felt like I'd been stabbed but I daren't look to see what had happened.  The looks of my friends said it wasn't pretty but no visible cuts.  As I had nothing broken we had no option but to continue - we had to make it to Hue.  My scooter wasn't going anywhere though, with the wheel rubbing on something, so I went on the back of Harrison's scooter for the rest of the ride.  And it was scary, with buses and lorrys speeding past trying to get home safe themselves.  I was kind of glad I wasn't riding myself t this time, but not being in control is kind of worse.  But the shouts of joy and relief when we finally made it through the streets of Hue to the hostel brought home to each and everyone one of us the magnitude of what we had accomplished as a team, of what we had gone through together.  The drinking session that went on into the early hours, with the typhoon blowing safely outside, was one of deep friendships being forged.

When we did wake the next day it appeared that I had a large bulge in my abdomen.  Michele, a nurse, calmed me and said it was just swelling and it would go down .  This did help my nerve a lot, but when I finally got to a hospital in Hanoi over a week later (I had some partying to do - don't judge me!) it was confirmed that I had a haemetoma which would take around 2 months to go.  It could have been a lot worse though.  This was nothing, however, compared to the devastation that Hue had suffered - trees were down and the river had flooded its banks.  In this state there was nothing to keep us here as anywhere worth seeing was closed, so all 19 of were out on the next overnight bus to Hanoi and closing in on the end of our journey together.

Hanoi, or at least the old French quarter we spent most of our time in, was not as heavy with traffic, but as the roads were narrower and the pavements were full of parked mopeds you had to walk in the street, where the rest of the mopeds were, and which drove wherever they felt like it.  Alongside the colonial French architecture, tree lined roads, food stalls and colourful shops selling almost anything including bamboo for every conceivable need, I found this a very interesting place to walk around and get lost in.  Some of the street food was fantastic  - in particular Nom Du Du, a green papaya salad with beef and peanuts (I think part 2 of the Asian Kitchen will have to be done soon!).

It was decided to spend our last days as Team Nari in Ha Long Bay.  We managed to hire a boat for just ourselves including an overnight stay on an island and another on the boat.  Our first day was raining so we could not grasp the full impact of what lay around us.  We could see the cliffs of the closest islands looming above us as we sailed past, and the shapes of others as they appeared out of the mists, but we got to see all the beauty when we awoke on the island the next day.  The water was calm, as the islands tend to create their own harbours in a way, so we went kayaking in the sea, exploring other beaches and caves.  But only now could we start to see many of the 1969 islands that make up Ha Long bay.

It really is as if you had found a totally different planet,  an unexplored world.  Every time the boat sailed past an island a whole new and amazing vista would present itself.  That night on the boat was to be the last we would all spend together, and needless to say it was absolute carnage.

Farewells were made on our return to Hanoi as people started going their own way, following their own journeys.  For Becky and I it was not yet over, and we headed to Sapa with Emily.  Sapa is a mountain town and reminded me lot of an Alpine town.  Alas, we had rain and mist again so could not enjoy the full scale of the views over the rice paddy terraces (one of things that stopped it feeling too Alpine...) but this did not stop us enjoying a few days trekking through the muddy countryside.

What did. for me anyway, was the local women who tagged along as some sort of guide, helping people when the route was steep and slippy.  While they were being helpful, they also did  great job of getting in the way.  Our guide would allow the women on the first day to join us as they were from his village and as we were expected to buy trinkets as a thank you this meant money was going into his village.  Any other women who tried to help would be shooed away.  But the overiding feeling I had was that the trekking business had changed the villages we wanted to see into something else.  Yes, we got to see local houses with little yards of animals and crops growing, and water buffalo meandering in the rice paddies, but at the same time the houses would be staged, and many were just souvenir shops selling the local crafts.  I understand that the only income these local tribes get is from their rice crop and the sale of local arts and crafts is a necessity, when every other house is a shop it starts to ruin the experience.

The homestay we stayed at for one night was not a real homestay experience but a low grade 14 bed dorm with matresses on a mezzanine level above the main family room.  We did not eat with the family, sleep with the family or have any major interaction beyond paying for a beer from the fridge.  The worst case was one the last day when we had a hike (it barely deserves that name, it most definitely was not a trek) to Cat Cat Village.  While this may once have been a proper tribal village, it appears to have been taken over by tourism - the paths are fully paved unlike anywhere else, the souvenir shops are continuous, all the way down to the little theatre where local youths presented traditional song and dance which seemed for the benefit of the Chinese tourists who rarely want the full experience, even in their own country.

And then that was that.  Becky departed to the Philippines and our travels of 5 weeks were at an end.  The farewell was brief and without tears.  We had intended to travel Vietnam together and we had.  It had been the most wonderful time, at times the most insane.  It had not been what we had expected, but then when do you expect to be travelling as a group of 19?  I had intended to do a cooking course along the way, but got caught up in the group mentality of doing everything together.  Do I regret missing out on not doing other things?  On not seeing the Marble Mountains?  The Phong Nha Caves?  Maybe...  But at the same time I had experiences which I would never have dreamed of considering had I not been with this group of people, and they are the times I will treasure forever.  Sometimes being in a group that large did get to me, to everyone I think, but then we would splinter and spend a day as a smaller group.  You can't make everyone happy, but as long as you are happy in what you have done and in your own choices you can't ask for anything else.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Holiday In Cambodia

I find it weird to realise that I have been on the road for over three months.  That's a quarter of my intended trip. It already feels like I don't have enough time left and so much that I would like to do in that time, but it's still a long time before I have to think about what I want to do with the next stage of my life.  For now I can just enjoy the ride.  And that's pretty much what it feels like I'm on at the moment.

After leaving China I had my usual re-grouping in Hong Kong & considered my next move.  This time I was to start the real travelling in South East Asia.  I had originally thought about heading straight to Bangkok on the usual route and do Thailand first as I want to go to a festival there in November.  However, I had forgotten about October so found I had a bit more time than I had thought.  So I bought a last minute flight to Phonm Penh, Cambodia.

I had been to Phonm Penh last year and done the main attractions, the Killing Fields and the S21 Genocide Museum, so I was able to to spend more time exploring the city and trying out new things.  Which is good as those sites, which while culturally important to see, are not exactly the most uplifting of experiences and are emotionally draining.  So instead I got to walk around the city, soak in the atmosphere, find interesting places to eat, and just enjoy myself.

I had decided to stay in dorm rooms so as to meet people quickly, and found this was amazingly easy at Mad Monkey.  In fact, I was greeted by a full dorm so got into the swing of things straight away and along with their bar found new friendships in no short supply.  But as most people were here for the first time and would be going to the Killing Field I still had most of the days to myself.

I had not really seen the city last time and what appeared to be very bleak was in fact very colourful and vibrant.  Cambodian people are very friendly, although the ubiquitous tuk-tuk and moto drivers can be overly pushy.  How on earth they think that someone who doesn't need a ride is clearly looking for drugs and is not just having a peaceful walk is beyond me.

My favourite of the days was spent on a cooking class.  I love Asian food.  Cambodian is a lot like Thai but less spicy, letting the flavours do the talking.  I did a full day course (actually 9-3) which included a trip to the market to see the raw ingredients we would be using and immerse ourselves in the cuisine, followed by a lesson preparing and cooking four dishes - spring rolls, fish amok, banana blossom & chicken salad, and sticky mango rice.

It was a very varied group of 14, which meant that we all got to assist in making the sauces we would be using. The food was amazing, but it was very difficult to go wrong.  My only criticism would be that we didn't really do much cooking.  All the cooking required things to be one en masse, such as the rice, steaming the amok, deep frying the spring rolls, or was decided that it could go badly wrong, as with making caramel.  I would like to do courses in other countries and will be looking out for ones which are a bit more hands on.

The best part of the time here, and what made it most like a holiday, was the people I met, in particular Rory and Becky.  I met Rory at the hostel bar after I had just said farewell to another friend.  He wasn't actually staying there but we got on great.  He was one for doing his own thing and had befriended a tuk-tuk driver and arranged to go to the Muay Thai boxing one night, so a coule of us went along.  Not knowing what to expect, possibly a fight in the back room of a bar, we found ourselves in an arena full of locals watching amateur and professional fights, drinking cheap beer with our driver.  I am not a great fan of boxing, but to be in there watching the fights, and watching an enthusiastic crowd, was a highlight of that city.  And to top it off our driver then took us to his mates shop where we sat outside on small plastic chairs drinking beer with his friends and eating the food his wife cooked for us  It was not an experience I imagined myself having, but was really glad I did.  A bit less certain when we remembered we still had to be driven home...

I was heading to Sihanoukville on morning and was getting breakfast before my bus picked me up when we found we were doing the same route so agreed to meet a couple of days later.  This was a decision which got me through the first evening in Sinahoukville.

I had a frosty reception in the dorm at Led Zephyr and the bar was pretty empty except for a group who were heading out the next day and not very approachable.  I was tired from late nights in Phonm Penh and just wanted to crash, but sat in that bar was one of the loneliest moments I had had so far.  Add to that that the first conversation I heard was about thefts from the dorm room lockers that left even the staff baffled as to how it happened (how do you get into the lockers without removing the locks?) and I really did wonder what I was doing there.

Thankfully this only lasted one night.  Rory came down to join me the next day and some more friendly faces were found in the dorm, including Niall, so it was a decent group who partied into the early hours.  Just a word of caution though - if you're ever thinking of playing in the sea at 2:30am in the middle of a storm, take your iPod out of your pocket...

The next day we just needed to relax, so to the beach we went.  This was not a relaxing experience.  Small children constantly hassle you to buy sunglasses and bracelets, woman trying to give you a massage or sell you food (actually, this wasn't too bad - 10 squid for $3 grilled in front of you).  As soon as you got rid of one bunch, another wave would come long.  So the rain was a bit of a blessing when it came.  Here we met Ayelet, John and Robbie, who had met Niall earlier in Siem Reap.  With the arrival of Becky that evening we were now seven.  And this is where I start to get swept into an adventure I had not planned to have.  I have no recollection of who first mentioned going to Koh Rong, but in the early hours and being very impressionable Becky and I decided not to get the bus to Kampot in the morning but instead agreed to get the ferry to a paradise island instead.  The best decision ever.

Our numbers swelled to eight on the voyage with the addition of Hayley, and together we partied, played with plankton, partied, chilled on the beach, partied and philosophised.  Long lasting friendships were made on that island.  It was the perfect place for this group.  It is effectively a backpacker community based around some hostels and bungalows and bars right next to the beach.  There are other activities to do but we had precious little time.  We bonded in a trek through the jungle to a remote beach, and found our group paradise on another secluded beach with calm water where we cold enjoy each others company for our few remaining hours together.

Becky & I were the first to leave, with Ayelet, as we were headed to Kampot (finally...) together and the group slowly parted.  Niall was to join us in Vietnam in a few days, and a few others had decided to head north together, so bonds had been made.  I never did get to say goodbye to Rory that day, which is probably just as well as I don't think I would have handled it well, but in my mind those days had been made possible by our chance meeting and his enthusiasm to jump into anything has rubbed off on me.

Kampot was a big change.  Technically a city, it is very small and can be navigated on foot by knowing which roundabout you are at (Durian roundbout, Year 2000 roundabout or Salt-Miners roundabout - each with its own sculpture).  We stayed at the fantastic Magic Sponge with its $3 a night open air penthouse dorm, 9 hole mini golf course and seven hours of happy hours!  So after a few G&T's and a quick round of golf, we headed out with some Aussie girls to another hostel for some live music.  This was an eventful evening, most notable for walking back to our hostel very late with no street lighting and dogs coming out of the dark trying to attack us.  Only our best dog impressions (well, Becky's...) kept us unmolested.

We managed to get onto a tour to Bokor mountain one day, the site of an old French colony township which is suffering from neglect following the war with Vietnam and subsequent power struggles.  It is now owned  by a Russian company who aim to turn the entire area into a new city with hotels and casinos.

It is running massively over budget, doubtless due to the highly corrupt Cambodian government.  They have started work, with some roads under construction and foundations being prepared for a huge hotel, but some buildings that were previously built look really dated.  They have a model of the proposed city and it looks horrific, a needless destruction of what was a stunning national park with now very little wildlife.

And that was that.  The next day we left for Vietnam.  I had wanted to travel with someone into this country and had found a great friend in Becky.  Little did we realise what the next few weeks would have in store for us...

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The First Solo Adventure

I left Borneo on a pre-booked flight back to Hong Kong to stay with Sally.  I left some great new friends scattered around the area, but travelling with them would mean re-tracing my steps and going backwards didn't seem right this early in my trip.  The only problem was that Sally's birthday was in 2 weeks, and I could not afford to spend that time in Hong Kong.  Nor could I really afford to do what I did next, but at least it was movement...

I had not considered going to China when I thought about coming out here, but not having a plan means you can make these last minute decisions..  However, it's a big place with so many diverse sights and backdrops, so where could I go for just a week?

Beijing was the obvious first choice with many things to do within the city and the Great Wall of China very close.  With little idea of what to expect I arrived with just as little idea of how to actually get to my hostel.  Thankfully the locals were very helpful & sent me in the right direction - even the little boy who just came over to chat while I was sat on my backpack gave me good ideas on what to see.  The friendliness did cause me a set back.

I am not ashamed to say I got scammed.  My guard was down from the initial experiences and I was truly not expecting it to happen here.  Thailand definitely, but not here.  Especially when my scammer was a dumpy little 30-something woman (I would have known something was wrong if the more common 2 young attractive girls had approached me - that doesn't happen to me anywhere!).  She said hi, said she was here on holiday & what was I doing?  I was hungry.  She knew somewhere she had gone the week before with her friend.  Would I like company & conversation?  'Why not?', I thought.  First impressions of the place had bells ringing, but I went with it trying to be more outgoing & willing to experience things.  The food was good.  So was the company.  The bill was horrific.  But by that time you're stuck.  You have to pay.  I'm just glad I only had one beer...  I learnt from others that I met later in the hostel that one guy decided to drink champagne.  I'm really glad I didn't do that!

It took a day or so to meet people.  The bar at the hostel/hotel was nice but pricey, so we would only go there to see who was in, check emails and drink water.  This was good though.  It meant the days were spent doing what I wanted to and then catch up in the evening for beers at the bar over the road, learning dice drinking games with the bar staff.

Within Beijing the usual attractions are Tienanmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace.  These were duly done in a couple days and much walking.  The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are vast with lots of history.  The audio guides are a bit hit and miss in reliability but offer very good  information as you walk about.  Tienanmen Square is (unsurprisingly) full of Chinese people having their photos taken as groups, individually, in front of this, that, anything.  Actually, everywhere is full of Chinese tourists, but there is nothing at Tienanmen Square that hints at the events of 1989, except the security checks at all entrances (they love these - bags are checked entering the underground and at all entrances to attractions).  Chairman Mao had it completely remodelled.  And then had his tomb located at the south end so he would not be forgotten.  This they love.  I decided to see it and queued for 50 minutes (I say queue - the Chinese do not know how to queue.  We shuffled along at faster than normal Chinese walking pace while everyone tried to shove past to gt ahead in a queue to see a man who wasn't going anywhere anytime soon) for less than 30 seconds viewing of what honestly looked like a mannequin.

Also well worth a visit is the 798 art district.  Located in an old electronics factory this is a collection of modern art galleries, cafes and shops which has a feel much more like Camden than Beijing.  This was a nice little diversion from the more touristy attractions.

But the highlight was of course the Wall.  There are a few sections of the wall accessible from Beijing but I decided to go to Jinshangling.  I was joined by James who I had met a couple of nights before.  The first surprise was how big Beijing is.  The journey took four hours.  We only left the city limits after 2 hours.  But the journey was rewarded by a phenomenal sight.  Jinshangling is one of the less reconstructed sections of the wall.  No paving exists in places, towers have fallen down, parapets are missing and steps have collapsed.  And it winds over the mountains, disappearing into the distance in both directions.  Towers can be seen dotted along the ridge on the horizon as if it goes on forever.

And, importantly, because of it's condition and distance from the city, it is not covered with tourists.  James and I, with another English couple, often had entire sections of wall between towers to ourselves which added to the sense of scale and remoteness.  You can imagine how Mongol invaders would have stared up at the wall and realised it wasn't going to happen.  We were all really glad we had decided to see this section of the wall, and there were some parts where renovation had taken place to give an idea of how it would have looked nearly 600 years ago.

My next stop was Xi'an, for the Terracotta Warriors.  With time in short supply I took the bullet train.  I actually missed the train by 2 minutes due to going to the wrong underground line for a transfer I had booked but the ticket office just changed it free of change for the next train.  That would not have happened in the UK.  The train was great.  With big comfy seats it did not feel as if you were travelling at speeds of up to 309 kph and 1000 km was covered in under 5 hours.

The Hantang Inn Hostel is one of, if not the, best in the city.  The food is not great and overpriced, the iced cappuccino was lovely and the beer was cheaper at the street bar outside, but the rooms were very good, staff very knowledgeable and efficient, and the common area very good for meeting people.  Which I promptly did.  A couple of German guys were chatting to some others I had seen at the King's Joy in Beijing and we became drinking buddies for the next few days.

I waited a day to see the Warriors as I was waiting for another friend, Adam, to join me from Beijing, so spent the first day exploring the city, starting with a bike ride around the city walls.  It was nice to give my legs a spin for the first time in weeks, even if the bike was less than could be wished for (steel frame, singlespeed, poor suspension and a bit small - why they wanted a deposit I don't know.  No one would consider stealing this.) but frankly the view was disappointing.  The city has been greatly remodelled in the last 20 years as Capitalism has moved into the country, leaving very little of the original city visible from the walls.  A walk around the streets was much more rewarding for that, in particular the Drum and Bell Towers and the Muslim Quarter, a street and couple of alley selling stall food really cheaply - spicy sausage on stick, meat skewers, dumplings, and a kind of stuffed, deep fried poppadom.  This kept us going back for a few visits!

Adam arrived later that day and along with the Germans we decided to see a couple of sights lit up.  The best thing we learnt from this is that taxis are very difficult to flag down in Xi'an.  But a good, and long, night was had.  Which made getting up at 9 the next morning very difficult.

I'm still not sure if I was underwhelmed by the Terracotta Warriors.  I think I expected to see more of them.  There are three pits.  Pit 3 is small and recommended to be the first visited.  Pit 2 has some warriors on view in it but mostly are under the original roof enclosure, which was good to see how the place was built.  The main attraction is Pit 1.  This is where the famous row after row of warriors can be seen.  They just don't go back as far as I imagined.  Maybe seeing the pictures over the course of years had given me a false sense of perspective which reality could not match.  What was a surprise, after a week in the country, was the entrance system.  You queue to buy a ticket, walk a long way to the gate and give the ticket to an attendant who punches it in the automatic gate, which I could have done myself.  Then you walk another 100m to another gate for someone to do it again.  I know they have a population of over 1.3 billion, but this seems a bit of an excessive way of creating jobs.

My final night was spent with my new friends, now including a Dutch guy who had also been at Beijing with us and pretty much anyone we get our hands on in the hostel.  The feeling of travelling camaraderie was akin to that felt in Kota Kinabalu, but at the same time we all felt it was fleeting, that most of us would not see each other again although some lasting friendships may have been made.  As we made our farewells the next morning part of me wished I hadn't booked my ticket back to Hong Kong.  But everyone was going in different directions.  Everyone else was spending longer in China and I hope they met each other again along the way, but as China has a blanket ban on external social media and especially Facebook keeping in touch is more difficult.

So what did I learn?  Well, I only had one week so did not have much to arrange unlike the next few months. I was annoyed by being scammed, partially for falling for it but mostly because it just went to make me more cynical of the kindness of strangers. But I survived (ok, for a short time) in a country that is not as easy as the rest of Asia for travelling.  English is not as widely spoken, and in Xi'an it seemed almost non-existent (signs are all in Mandarin only).  This trip would not have been as easy if not for the people I met, especially Adam who was actively learning Mandarin as he went along, although the differences in dialects made it hard sometimes.

I know that while travelling solo means you can do what you want when you want to, but it will be even more fun to spend time with people going in the same direction for a while.  China was a big success for me, but it could have been a fatal failure and left me doubting my ability to go further.  Let's just hope the knowledge that there will be silver (and gold or platinum) linings will give me the strength to get through the clouds that will eventually arrive...

Borneo - Part 3: The Hardest Part Is Saying Goodbye...

'When you're young you just believe there'll be many people with whom you'll connect with.  Later in life you realise it only happens a few times.  You can screw it up.  Miss-connect.' 
Richard Linklater, Before Sunset 

This is hopefully where this stops being a 'what I did' blog (well, a bit) and I start the musing.  Three very important people were about to arrive who would make me realise what I was capable of.

When this trip was being planned by Sally she had booked a climb up South East Asia's highest mountain - Mount Kinabalu.  She was unable to do this after getting a new job and leaving early.  Lucy was kind enough to sell the ticket for us, and did so very quickly.  As Lucy spoke to an interested person I sat on the balcony wondering who it was.  Would we get on?  Would I spend the best part of 3 days in excruciating boredom?  Or not being able to communicate due to the English arrogance of feeling English is the only language we need?  Then a very pretty head pops around the door - "Hi! I'm Laura!".  She told me later that she had the same concerns as me, but from the off we knew this was going to be fantastic.  Unfortunately we could never manage to meet up until the last night before the climb to be able to get to know each other a bit better.

In the meantime Steve arrived.  I was on my way in after an aborted dinner date with a Dutch couple, he was on his way out for food.  So with 2 weeks of local knowledge under my belt we headed off for food, and the same the next day, to the Filipino fish market.  Beers were an important part of these diners and Steve got us chatting to two Italian girls who we met up with again over the next few days.  Solo travelling was proving to be fun!

On my last day before heading to Mount Kinabalu my third friend arrived.  Technically this was a return.  Marie had been here before Sally and I went to the river tour.  We had spent a long time chatting into the early hours on the balcony, and I had been eagerly awaiting her return fro a 12 day tour.  We spent our day mostly shopping, on the most entertaining shopping trip ever (pink and yellow bunny gloves for a mountain climb anybody!?) followed by a food tour - starter, fish course and mains at different hawker stalls.  It was a novel idea of a couple of Marie's friends from her tour and finished with more karaoke!  A curfew lock out was narrowly avoided, but on our return Steve was on his way out exclaiming that beers, the Italians and Laura were awaiting just around the corner.  Knowing I would staying out on my last night, but really needing to see Laura & get to know her before climbing a mountain with her I went back down the stairs and into what I hope is first of many mad nights.  The bar shut, drinks had to be brought in from another restaurant and we finally crashed at 3am.  Laura and I had realised the next few days were going to be immense fun and Steve and I realised we had to find somewhere to sleep in the early hours.  We were warned away from sleeping on the waterfront by some locals, so heeding their advice we finally decided to sleep on the stairs at Lucy's, waiting for her to open the gates and receive us with admonishing glares.

A few hours sleep were managed, another tearful farewell with Marie, a text to Steve as he had already gone out, and I was off on another adventure.  The agreement with Laura was to make our own way to Kinabalu Park an meet there.  This only proved to be a bad idea when Laura managed to get an upgrade on the room and it took nearly an hour to find her.  But oh, what a room!  And what a view onto Mount Kinabalu, our nemesis for the next two days.

Laura and I were effectively forced together by circumstances and need - but we agreed that we could not have wanted more from a stranger to travel with.  Laura is a fantastic person with one of the most happy, outgoing personalities I have ever encountered.  Anyone who truly knows me will know I'm not exactly outgoing, but the previous couple of weeks had really seen a change in me.  And that I will give anything outdoorsy a go.  So when Laura suggested in the morning that we walk to the gate which marks the start of the climb adding another 4.5km to the 5.7km (at least - meandering up the mountain to the Laban Rata lodge could actually mean over 7km of walking) I thought, why the hell not?  Surely a climb should be done from the park entrance and anything less is not paying respect to the mountain!  Should we do the via ferrata descent?  A cable and bridge decent across the sheer cliff face?  Bring it on!  The climb itself is not exactly difficult.  It just doesn't quit.  Ever upwards on endless stairs and stepped rocks, it's  trudge.  5 hours later you arrive at Laban Rata lodge and the views are incredible, and the sunset at nearly 4000m is beautiful but short.

Then comes the worst bit - in bed by 8pm in order to get up by 2am for breakfast and the trek to the summit in time for sunrise at 6am.  Not much was spoken in these last hours.  Words of encouragement only.  Just one step at a time, make it to the top at your own pace, and then there it was - the goal - the final scramble up Low's Peak, and time for celebratory photographs and a rest before the descent - and the via ferrata.

Again, this is not difficult.  It is 99% safe.  You are roped to your fellow climbers and caribinered to the route cable.  You can still slip and fall, but you're only going to hit the rock face - not fall off it.  As soon as you make the first step over onto the face and lean back on the cable, any fear of heights (not an issue as I do climb, and have done the paragliding) are gone.  This is a fun sport, and very tiring.  By the time we had wended our way, getting ever more confident at this new experience, our bodies were exhausted and in agony.  Unfortunately we still had a 5.7km trudge back down the mountain, mercifully taking much less time than going up, but barely capable of movement by the end (and still Laura had nothing but words of encouragement for those we passed going up - a quality I greatly admire).  Alas, all good things must come to an end, and great things end the hardest.  We collected our certificates, shared a couple of beers, and made our very tearful farewells at the bus stop.  Laura continued her journey to Sepilok, I returned to Kota Kinabalu.

But my farewells were not over.  Before the altitude sickness kicked in, wiping me out for 16 hours, and almost before my legs finally gave way under me, I had one last night out with the Italian girls.  And a final word of wisdom from a 21 year old: 'The best thing about travelling is meeting new friends'.  'Yes,' I agreed, 'but the hardest part is saying goodbye'.  Unfortunately, I don't know if that is ever going to get easier.  But I know I haven't miss-connected these last couple of weeks...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Borneo - Part 2: The End Of An Era

So, what did happen in Kota Kinabalu?  Not a lot really, but I was very busy doing it.

Lucy's proved to be a great base for my time in Sabah.  Apart from the midnight curfew, which proved to be a bit of a stumbling block from the very start.  Until now we had not been out drinking too late, but on arrival were greeted by Denise who was having her last night of freedom before heading to a teaching job in Kabul for a year.  Needless to say it was only right to see her off in style.  Midnight came and went and much karaoke was sung (I will not say enjoyed) and we had to spend our first night in a different hostel.

Kota Kinablu is a nice city but there isn't much to do beyond drinking and shopping.  What day trips there are are either expensive or need good weather, which we didn't get to begin.  It is mostly used by travellers as a stopover on their way to other excursions in Sabah, such as scuba diving, rainforest tours and climbing Mount Kinabalu.  We got ourselves booked onto a trip to the Kinatabangan River as soon as possible and headed to Sepilok to start our rainforest experience at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.  Here they rehabilitate orphan orangutans so that can be released into the wild when they are fully grown.  Visitors are able to view the orangutans twice a day during feeding times.  It could possibly be seen as a bit tacky, especially the amount of visitors that crowd onto the viewing platforms, but the money does go to a very good cause and many of the orangutans at the centre may never even get that level of exposure to humanity, as other feeding platforms are not accessible.

Our real experience started with a transfer to the Kinatabangan Nature Lodge where we would have river cruises and jungle treks and the chance of seeing animals in their habitat.  At first this was a lot of monkeys - Proboscis and Macaques, and on the night trek nothing but a kingfisher (which everyone seemed to see, no matter which night they saw it on, on the same branch, leading to the theory that it was in fact just stuck there).  What we did get, however, was a 4 foot long Doctored Cat Snake in the open roof space of the dorms which was chasing a very large Gecko for it's tea.  This moment spawned a lot of excitement, and some terror when it disappeared.  It was eventually shooed of into the undergrowth, which I'm sure was perfectly safe.  A 3 hour day trek did not reveal anything except some old elephant tracks, but it was a good experience of being in the rainforest.  Our first treat came on the second day - a sighting of an orangutan in the wild.

These are rare as they like to stay away from rivers (they can't swim) and this one was staying above a small lodge, so clearly had no issues with humans.  And we finally saw lots of birds, which had been noticeably missing from the earlier cruises.  Although these were far away in the tops of trees, it was nice to see the Hornbills of Borneo.  And then we had our biggest surprise as another boat went passed us - and there was Rob from Miri grinning and waving!  Much to the bemusement of everyone else dates were arranged over the water to meet up back in Kota Kinabalu.  We got our final treat on the last morning - the eyes of a crocodile peeping up out of the river.

I have heard of better sightings than this, but at least we could check it off the list.  The only animal we didn't get to see was the Borneo Pygmy Elephant.  These are very rare and you either see none or entire herds.  The river is long but the forest curtain narrow, so seeing these elephants can never be guaranteed.  We were told that this nearest herd had travelled further up the river a couple of weeks previously.  Apparently they returned a couple of weeks later...

We returned to Lucy's and settled into life again.  The friends that we had made only a few days earlier had gone on their ways, but new ones were not far away.  Eventually the weather improved and we made full advantage by heading out to the local islands to take in some snorkeling. I'm not a big fan of water so this was a bit nervy, but to see live coral reefs with the most amazing fish and other sea life was wonderful.  Discussions with various people over the next couple of weeks have mad me seriously consider diving to experience further what lies below the surface.

Sally was due to leave at the end of the week and so on our last night we met up with Rob as arranged and our friend Anna, who we had met before heading to the river.  And then the first farewell had to be made.  I had been travelling with Sally for 7 weeks and it had been an amazing adventure, but she had to return to real life.  I feel she has prepared me well for the months to come, but it was time to do it alone.  Which meant staying where I was awaiting the big event for Borneo - the ascent of Mount Kinabalu.  I was not left alone however.  Rob had also left for further adventures but Anna was still here for a couple of days and so we did what you do in Kota Kinabalu - drink, shop, and watch films.  The Sunday market was fun (apart from the possibly dead pets) with the most incredible range of large foam food fridge magnets.  But that fun was also soon over, and saying goodbye to another friend I looked forward to my first night alone in a 6-bed dorm.

This feels like a short blog, and the next is not far away, but chapters of our lives are not of standard lengths.  That would be dull.  And this is a good time to end this chapter.  With the departure of Anna I was alone.  I knew no one in the city.  It's not a great feeling.  But it was short lived.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Borneo - Part 1: Settling Into The Groove

What do I mean by that?  Well, up to now Sally and I have been travelling by ourselves, sharing twin rooms, chatting to people in bars, but generally doing most things, such as visiting attractions, dining out and drinking as, technically, a couple.

This changed as soon as we arrived in Malaysian Borneo, and life began to change into something I am sure will become the norm for months to come.  And we also had our first mini hiccup with a delayed flight out of Kathmandu, a very slow baggage collection & a nearly missed connection out of Kuala Lumpur narrowly avoided by me running through the airport to tell the heck in desk that we had a bit of an issue and could they please just wait for us little bit thank you very much...

And so we arrived late at night into Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  For reasons I still don't quite understand, Sarawak, and the other Borneo state of Sabah still have a very independent mindset - to the extent that even though we had just flown in from the Malaysian capital we still had to go through full immigration processes and get our passports stamped for Sarawak.  Why do I tell you this?  All will become apparent further down the page...

Kuching is very lovely.  Not a lot to do though, except a couple of (free!) museums on the states history & also a Natural History museum.  The State Museum was informative about the tribal culture and of flora and fauna of the area.  Which is just as well as the Natural History museum had shut before we could cross the road to get there, missing out on a stuffed crocodile which was apparently the best exhibit.  There was another Chinatown to see, which was a bit odd as the entire city appeared to be one big Chinatown, and also a few statues of cats (Kuching means cat in the local language and they are treated like royalty).  Most of the attractions of the area are outside the city, but as they were similar to ones we intended to see later in our trip we missed them out.

Importantly, this was my first experience of a dorm room in a hostel, although we only had one person there briefly on our second night before we departed & the other guests were less than friendly.  Even the owner said they were the least sociable people he'd had there!  The hostel was the Borneo Seahare and I would recommend it, although from what we have heard most of the hostels in Kuching appear to be very nice.

The same could not be said for Miri, our next stop after a very brief plane ride.  At the airport we met Rob who had been at Kuching and we realised had been at the same restaurant as us the night before and given us a friendly wave.  He had nowhere booked to stay so we took with us to The Highlands Hostel.  Oh dear...  Lonely planet and Trip Advisor both raved about this place, but it seems it had recently moved premises & was now in what appeared to be an empty office space over 2 floors.  Our dorm was on the floor without the reception area and was just a storage area for random stuff.  The staff were very unhelpful, not even knowing where the bus station was, and would leave huge knives lying around and find it funny.  I think the owner must have been away as I cannot believe he would leave the place like this!

Miri itself is not a great place.  It's very dull, but does have a reasonable beach nearby to lie on and try to get rid of my pastiness.  Nearby are the Niah caves.  Paintings in some of the caves have revealed that these caves were inhabited at least 40,000 years ago.  These caves were not open to us, but the Great Cave was. A World Challenge school group at the hostel had said that these caves were not spectacular - never trust 15 year old girls!  The caves went on through absolute darkness for a few kilometres.  Occasionally light would stream through holes in the cavern roof revealing the scale of them.

How you can fail to be impressed by nature when it makes you feel so small I have no idea.  Rob joined us on this trip, along with a couple of sisters staying at the same hostel.  And then we got drunk.

Sally and I had planned to go trekking in the Lembir Hills, but heavy rainfall and increased risk of leeches made us make an early trip to Brunei.  And this is where the fun begins.  (For reasons which will become apparent in the next blog, Rob decided to fly to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah).

We got a bus to Brunei.  Our passports were duly stamped to show this.  Brunei is pretty but has nothing to offer.  There is a nice mosque, built in a purpose made lagoon with a replica barge docked alongside, as well as a Regalia Museum.

As we had arrived late in the afternoon during Ramadan, these were both closed.  Brunei s under Sharia Law, so sale of alcohol is forbidden.  So we had nothing to do except be stunned by the fact that Brunei has more roundabouts than people and they accidentally banned sale of cigarettes by banning it for shops within 1km of schools and then finding out only two shops were left which could sell them.  So an outright ban was easier.  And a speeding ticket will set you back 1000 pounds!

We got a bus out of Brunei the next morning to go to Kota Kinabalu.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I shall begin the epic passport stamping event.  Brunei is split into two parts by the Limbang extension of Sarawak.  So, you exit Brunei.  Off the bus, stamp passport, back on bus, enter Sarawak, off bus, stamp, on bus, leave Sarawak again, enter Brunei, exit Brunei, enter Sarawak, and then, because the states are bizarrely independent, exit Sarawak and finally enter Sabah, getting stamped every step of the way.  I have a fresh passport, and they still couldn't get them on the same page.  Sally and Urs, a German we met on the bus, spent their time trying to guess where the next stamps would go in their rapidly filling passports, trying in vain to direct them away from the few empty pages remaining.

We had nothing booked in Kota Kinabalu between the three of us, but the bus operator, Danny, said his mum ran a hostel  - Lucy's Homestay.  The guidebooks were favourable and so we made our home there for our differing durations.

That was nine days ago.  Strangers have come, and friends have gone.  Sally and I went and came back again.  Adventures have been had and stories told.  But I am still here.  Now alone, but with new adventures and stories to come before I myself bid farewell to Lucy.  And as my tale here is not yet finished, you're going to have to wait!

And I bet you're wondering what happened to Rob?  Well...

Monday, 5 August 2013

Almost at 'The Top of The World'...

I had always wanted to go to Nepal.  Don't know why.  May have been the mountains, the shrines and prayer flags along the mountain paths, the breathtaking scenery in all the photographs I had seen growing up.  Needless to say, I barely saw any of this...

We had been told Kathmandu was a bit mental.  Clearly these people had never been to India.  While the traffic still weaved around the pedestrians, and mopeds still beeped their horns, it was a lot more relaxed than we had expected.  Our accommodation also took a few steps down as we chose more basic guesthouses.  In Kathmandu we stayed at the Madhuban Guesthouse.  Inexpensive and with no air-con, it is close to the main tourist area of Thamel where most bars and hostels are located, and also many shops selling clothes, souvenirs, other tat and fake North Face etc equipment.  Worth the risk if you're not expecting too much from them.  Thamel itself is a maze of narrow roads and alleyways, also used by the locals for day to day living, and has a definite charm.

The few sights to see can be done in a couple of days.  The Kathmandu Durbur Square (one of three but the most lively to see) is just south of Thamel.  Which we found out after going it completely the wrong direction after thinking it was something else on the map...

It is a complex of 49 temples, strewn through the streets, with market stalls selling jewelry and ornaments, all in a fairly small area.  Also near here is 'Freak Street' where the hippies first stayed back in the '60's.  I can't imagine it's changed all that much.  A further walk took us to Swayambhu, a Buddhist temple also know as the Monkey Temple due to the number of monkeys that live here - and harass the tourists.  A climb up over 300 steps brings you to a large stupa with further shrines dotted around.  Prayer flags flow between the buildings and trees to all quarters.  There are also great views over the Kathmandu valley.

Two further temples are worth a visit.  Boudhanath is the centre of Buddhist learning in Nepal.  A central stupa is surrounded by a circle of shops and restaurants, but alleyways lead off to hostels and monasteries making it feel more austere.  A 20 minute walk takes you to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple to Shiva.  It is considered so holy that non-hindus cannot enter the main temple, but the whole complex is pleasant enough, although maybe not warranting the high entry fee...  Due to the great importance of this temple cremations regularly take place (three were ongoing as we visited, and another (shrouded) body was being washed in the river).  On the other side of the river (and up more steps) is the temple of Goraknath.  Again we could not enter the main temple, but could walk through the many shivalaya in the forest.

From Kathmandu we got a tourist bus (different from a local bus - it's comfier) to Pokhara.  A much more relaxed city located next to Phewa Lake, it is the starting point for many treks around the western Himalayas and the Annapurna range.  As it was not trekking season, and we only had a few days, this was not an option.  We did, however, get to do a little day trek...  A path winds its way from the south end of the lake up through the forest to the World Peace Pagoda.  It is definitely worth the walk for the views alone!  I found the route to the top to be a great analogy for peace processes - there are many paths, not all go to the right place and it is very easy to get lost!  After appreciating the views we made a critical error - we continued walking, aiming for a village called Bhumdi with the intention of walking around the lake.  It turned out to be a lot further than anticipated...  After walking for miles, mainly uphill, with no food and little water, using only vague directions from helpful locals ('that way - 2 hours', '2 and a half hours', 'just another 2 km'), we eventually started going downhill.  It was late and was thinking about raining when we found a bus.  They said it was still 2 hours to the bottom of the hill, let alone back to Pokhara - so we got the bus home.  Three to a seat, down the very steep rocky roads we had achingly walked up for 5 hours...

The next day we decided to do something more sedate - paragliding!  This was amazing!  Not only did we get our only sight of the Annapurna peaks above their clouds (apparently only seen twice in the previous few weeks) but it was a truly wonderful experience.  My pilot, Elli, was unable to find any thermals to get a decent flight, something which had never happened to her before.  This meant only one thing - we packed up, hot-footed back to the top of the hill and went again.  This may have been the most awesome time of my life!  Finding the thermals this time, Elli took me into the bottom of the clouds, went over the lake and treated me to a few little acrobatics.  This second flight had given me a chance to talk to her about the sport and to appreciate more than a single flight may have done.  The feeling of freedom floating through the air is incredible, and as long as you can find the thermals you can fly for as long as you want.  The result?  She let me fly her kite for a little bit and I am now completely hooked!  I will definitely be going back to take a full course and become a qualified paraglider!

The rest of our stay was spent having massages, having a boat trip on the lake, eating and drinking.  The only thing you have to get used to here (and in Nepal in general) is regular power cuts.  But as the bars usually have their own generators this is a problem quickly fixed...

Our stay here was greatly enhanced by our choice of guesthouse.  The Pushpa Guesthouse is family run (the children will want to play with you) and the owner is very knowledgeable about the excursions on offer - he will not try and sell you the most expensive, unless it's the best, or something that he does not feel would be suited to you.  Highly recommended!

This left only a bus journey back to Kathmandu (staying at the same guesthouse, enabling me to return their purloined guidebook) and flight back to Malaysia.

Nepal has left me wanting more.  I want to see the mountains.  I want to go on week long treks.  I will be back...