Living the Life in Laos

The joys of travelling.  It’s 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.  I’m in the Luang Prapang airport and after negotiating with about three different people I have finally found out that my flight has been cancelled to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Thankfully, I have managed to get on another flight but it doesn’t leave until 7.30pm.  So that means I just need to wait it out, eat the cheese crackers I bought for 50 cents as lunch and tell you all about the glorious country that is Laos.

I had so many ideas in my head before I left home about how countries I would be visiting would be like in real life.  When I told everyone I was travelling around South East Asia I imagined steamy tropical clouds behind a jungle of mountains, smiling locals greeting me with a bow not jaded by the Western culture, bumpy bus rides through pristine country side, small towns and villages with crooked streets to explore and get lost in, crumbling temples and buddhas hidden in masses of bamboo and Monks dressed in red strolling along in their leather sandals…Laos has certainly delivered all of this.  What an amazing country.

I believe that Laos may be one of the last remaining jewels of South East Asia – it is a very different atmosphere to Cambodia and Vietnam.  The Lao people are actually quite “well off” in Asian standards and I would not call Laos third world unlike Cambodia.  They are very clean and tidy people who take pride in the shop fronts and houses, sweeping away the dust every morning.  There is no begging, a small amount of touting and no constant sound of beeping horns – there is just a sense of calm and peace.  Laos is still raw and natural and dare I say it – not ruined by the tourists just yet!

Last Saturday, 3 May, I flew the one hour flight from Hanoi to the Laos capital, Vientiane. The city of Vientiane isn’t one of the most beautiful or interesting places of Laos.  After I met my tour group (two British girls and an elderly New Zealander gentlemen) and checked into the hotel I went for a walk.  I wandered a few back streets and made my way to the Mekong River and strolled along the river front.  The Mighty Mekong I had heard – not so mighty or much water in this section!  Its interesting to note that just across the river you are officially in Thailand.  Most of the small local restaurants were shut for the day, so it was just me and a few stray dogs hanging out.  Walking back to the hotel I passed a few local shops selling electrical goods and many Government buildings.

Later that evening the four of us went out for a group dinner.  Its amazing what twilight can do for a city!  The river front twinkled with lights and tables and chairs were set up along the river, but still very laid back.  We choose a quaint local restaurant and managed to order some meals – obviously none of us could speak Lao and the waiter had some trouble understanding us – but after some pointing and laughing we got there in the end.

Sunday saw us depart the hotel for a guided sight seeing tour of the city.  Vientiane shares a few small attractions.  The most interesting for me was the COPE centre.  The centre helps and supports victims of unexploded cluster bombs that were dropped all over Laos during the Vietnam War by the US.  The US dropped these cluster bombs into Laos to stop the Viet Congs from using Laos as a side track down into Southern Vietnam – more commonly known at the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Its incredible to think that thirty years on there are still quite severe impacts of war occurring in Laos.  Children go to touch them; thinking they are toy and are either killed or severely mained, usually losing an arm or leg.  The COPE centre employs experts to track these bombs and deploy them as safety as possible.

We left Vientiane on Monday morning and drove north for most of the day until we reached the small backpacker town of Vang Vieng.  Along the way we stopped at salt extraction plant to see how salt was pulled from the ground, dried, bagged and loaded on to the truck.  We were also meant to stop by a rice whisky brewing factory, however this was closed down.  The family across from the factory do brew rice whisky which they were only too happy to show us.  The entire family about 12 people came out from the house and giggled and smiled at us.  A middle aged women sidled up beside me, grabbed my arm and held it against her – apparently she loved the colour of my skin because I was lighter then her!  All the women laughed and covered their mouths thinking this was a great joke!  An older women, I would say the grandmother, called me over to where she was stripping pieces of bamboo to make plates.  She pulled a little wooden chair over for me and asked me to sit and explained in Lao what she was doing – I had no idea what she said – but we chatted to each other in our languages and somehow understood.  One of the most memorable experiences of my life.  These people are not a tourist attraction, they were a normal, hard working family but they kindly accepted us into their home.  I didn’t want to leave – I could have spent all afternoon with these beautiful people.  I left with a huge smile on my face and thinking “this is why I wanted to travel”.

Vang Vieng is in the middle of land locked Laos and you know its a happening place when the die hard backpackers have found it.  The town itself is small and there are a few tourist shops mainly selling thongs and board shorts, quite a few local restaurants and street food vendors, every second store is a “travel agent” selling water sport activities and a number of “lounges” for the backpackeys to hang out in.  The lounges consist of short legged tables and cushions on the floor facing a TV screen, usually playing an episode of “Friends” with Lao subtitles.

Vang Vieng is famous for its tubing, where the backpackers float along the Nam Song River in the inner tubing of a tractor tyre, stop at a bar on the banks, down the 2 for 1 shots of potent alcohol and continue on, doing the same thing on and on.  Its also famous for the number of deaths as a result of alcohol induced stupidity mixed with water.  There has been a large crack down on the bars and now there are only 3 bars to get drunk at!  We decided as a group (which basically meant I really wanted to experience tubing (sans the alcohol) but couldn’t as elderly John did not think this was a good idea) to go kayaking down the river the afternoon we arrived.  We arrived at the travel agent, paid for our tickets and ca-boom!!  A huge tropical thunderstorm erupted that bucketed down the rain!  The wind blew the rain into the store, the gutters backed up, the locals pulled their blinds down on their restaurants (most don’t have a actual door) and the thunder and lightening was impressive.  The driver kindly came back to rescue us and we re-booked our kayak trip for 7am the next morning.

Walking down the streets of Vang Vieng after dinner you wouldn’t believe who I ran into!  My old tour group from Vietnam!  They were heading back to the hotel so it was a quick reunion but still great to see them.  Further down the street I then saw Ratha, my old tour guide, in a bar with a couple of mates.    I was persuaded to have one beer and catch up.  Of all places in Laos!

Tuesday morning was glorious – the overnight rain cooled the temperature and produced mist and fog over the mountains outside my hotel room.  The view along the kayak tour was also stunning – early morning means no backpackers so it was peaceful.  Just some locals out fishing and some washing their clothes in the cold water.  The water isn’t very deep but its crystal clear and rocky in sections which means a bit of navigating and steering through white water.

After the paddle, we went and visited Tham Jang caves before departing for Luang Prabang.  I could of easily spent another few days in Vang Vieng.  The atmosphere is chilled and the swimming holes are beautiful to wade in.

The drive to Luang Prabang was long and bumpy.  The road is destroyed by the rain and it weaves through the mountains and valleys making it slow and difficult to maintain.  A few times I got bucked from my seat and ended up on my feet – I decided that thats why seat belts are used and strapped myself in – first time in South East Asia!  The views are incredible and the jungle is lush and natural.

The drive was well worth it – Luang Prabang is an amazing town.  It’s perfect with rustic shop fronts, temples adorned with glass mosaics, frangipani trees that smell delightful, cafes hidden behind a mass of tropical plants, paper lanterns floating in the summer breeze creating a charming atmosphere and happy people everywhere – that’s all in the main street!

The Brits and I couldn’t help ourselves picking a restaurant to eat at with the most about of charm possible, plants and twinkling lights!  Then we spend hours strolling through the night markets stopping to look at the beautiful, local, handmade products.  I never wanted to leave!

Wednesday afternoon we drove about thirty minutes out of town to the Khouangsi Waterfall.  I didn’t realise at the time but Free the Bears (who I volunteered with in Cambodia) also has a sanctuary here.  I was so excited to see my old bear buddies again (although different bear buddies obviously!).  They were still as beautiful as ever and they have a fantastic enclosure thats well set up.  Funnily enough, I bumped into the lady I worked with in Cambodia – Pisi.  Again – the people you meet in Laos!  Pisi’s husband, who also works for Free the Bears, was doing some work at the enclosure so she had travelled up to visit him.

As soon as I saw the pools of Khouangsi Waterfall I thought “this is paradise” and I couldn’t stop saying wow.  I can’t recall a more beautiful, natural place on Earth.  The photos I took don’t do it justice – imagine it to be a thousand times better in real life and an amazing vivid blue colour.

On Thursday we all woke at 5.30am to travel into town and witness the food offerings to the monks.  Whats happens is locals (and Westerners wanting to experiencing Lao life) line the streets with bowls of sticky rice, vegetables and cakes.  The monks leave their monasteries at about 6am and walk in single file along the streets stopping to receive their food for the day.  Each monk carries their own bowl with a lid and the “laypeople” place a handful of food into their bowl.  There is no conversation, it is silent and the monks continue through the streets before returning to the monastery to share the food.

Later that morning we journeyed down the Mekong Delta to the Pak Ou Caves and had lunch in a floating restaurant on the river.  Along the way we stopped in a river side village and looked at their handicrafts for sale.  Back on land we visited one of the most beautiful temples in town – Wat Xieng Thong.  I loved the impressive glass mosaic of the Tree of Life.  We also walked into the centre and watched the monks doing their daily prayer at about 6pm.  It was incredible – they have a sing-song prayer which is kind of like a meditation session.  It was nice to sit at the back of the temple on the floor and just watch them.

On Friday, I spent the day strolling, looking in shops, browsing at jewellery, taking any quirky back street I could find, getting lost, smiling at monks, getting caught in a down pour, drinking a iced chocolate in a cafe with a French man while it rained and enjoying lunch in a local restaurant. I spent half an hour in a book shop teaching an Lao man English.  He had written on pieces of paper words that he must be learning through English classes.  He must ask any English speaking person that comes in to help him as he had a lot of pieces of paper!    My words were “crumbling”, “peer pressure” and “resilant”.  Do you know how hard it is trying to explain a word that is so natural to me!  I found it very difficult but we got there in the end and we made some sentences to use the words in.

That night Brits and I went out to dinner together and then went to a cool bar called Utopia where I caught up with two more Brits I had previously met twice before in Vietnam.  Hmmm…I’m definitely on the backpacker trail!! The world is very small!!

Due to the monks needing to go to bed early to rise early, all the pubs shut at about 11.30pm and there are signs everywhere asking you to be quiet and not be rowdy.  According to the backpackers the next best place to hang out after midnight in Luang Prabang is the bowling alley further out of town.  So about 12 of us loaded into the back of a tuk tuk and spent the next couple of hours drinking Loa Beer and bowling.

So it’s Sunday as I write this – I’m back in another airport – Hanoi this time.  I arrived at about 8.30pm last night and went straight to bed.  This morning when I arrived at the airport, my flight had been bumped again!  Thankfully the airline moved me to the next flight at 11am, so I’m only waiting an extra hour.

Today (Sunday) I will arrive in China.  I don’t think I can class myself in South East Asia anymore which is a little sad because I love this part of world but I am extremely excited to see another part of Asia.  I have three free days in Beijing so I have downloaded a e-copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to help me out.  On Wednesday night I meet yet another tour group and I spend the next month travelling through China, Tibet, Nepal and India.  I am really excited and can’t imagine the places I am going to see and the experiences I will encounter.

Z x

P.S – Its Monday afternoon now as I finish this post.  The flight didn’t leave until 1pm.  But Vietnam Airlines kindly gave all the passengers a free soft drink or bottle of water.  I arrived late last night and have been sleeping most of the day.  Its a huge culture shock being in Beijing!  Hardly anyone speaks English (even the hotel staff) and most things are written in Chinese so even on my little venture out today I have been a bit overwhelmed!!  Plus I’m the only blonde person in miles so getting lots and lots of stares!  Also FYI – China doesn’t allow access to many websites including Facebook and WordPress so I have been a little sneaky to get my access, but having issues with the photos so will put them up as soon as I can.

Tạm biệt Vietnam…until next time

Well that was a whirl wind tour of Vietnam if I’ve ever seen one.  2000 kilometres from top to bottom, from Saigon to Hanoi done and dusted in 12 days.

I looked back at my first post in Vietnam…I was hesitant about my first tour but I’m glad I did it.  How else can you experience a fast paced country then with ten other like minded travellers jumping from hotel to bus to train to restaurant to bar!

What I particularly liked about G Adventures is that its not a tour group, its more so everyone travelling together, everyone enjoying a night out together and everyone choosing what they want to do each day.  There was no flag touting tour guide herding us from one boring tourist trap to another.  It was “here is a list of cool places to see” go for it!  I enjoyed quite a few days by myself doing my own thing but it was always nice to come back to the hotel and see familiar faces.

Hanoi took me by surprise…its a beautiful city surrounding a pretty lake.  Walking the lake front with its large trees reminded me of Central Park in New York.  The locals enjoy keeping fit by running by the lake or using the free gym equipment.  The weather was a relief; only 28`C so no sweating in sight.

The streets of Hanoi don’t line up and the houses are awkwardly stacked on each other.  Crossing the road is like a game of cat and mouse, I felt the whisp of a motorbike once or twice and I think at the time if my feet had of been a centimetre longer I would have had 10 broken toes!

Today I met up with Lisa and we went to the Water Puppet Theatre.  The puppets are made from wood and lacquer and are moved around the water by a supporting rod.  The puppeteers are actually in the water too – about waist deep – but a hidden by a screen.  Its extremely clever.  It dates back to the 11th century.

The performance lasted about 50 minutes and basically went through and showed traditional Vietnamese culture in a series of short performances – there was one performance about fishing and another on growing rice.  Its all spoken in Vietnamese so hard to understand but with the live band and singers playing traditional music it was well worth the $3US.

Hanoi was also the farewell dinner and as excepted we did party hard – dinner at a restaurant first then hopping to three bars.  However I was very well behaved as I had a 7am flight to catch.  I’m not sure how many of my travel buddies remember me saying goodbye!  It was lovely though in the morning that Ratha, Jorgen and Evan woke from their hangovers to see me off.

So until next time Vietnam – good bye!

Z x

Photos

Halong Bay

Tuesday afternoon – our group’s last train trip from Hue to Halong was a doozy…nice send off Vietnam…thank you very much!!

Firstly the train was nearly an hour late, so we had to sit in the stuffy train station and smell the lovely odours coming from toilets.

Apparently the first class train that was meant to take us to Hanoi was diverted in a different direction so we ended up with a second class piece of crap!  The carriages were used, the floors were carpeted and stained, the fabric mattresses were stained (yuck! – the others had a leather exterior, so much cleaner), no clean pillows or blankets (only sheets) and there were mice running around.  Overall the train was just old and very worn.  My sleeping sheet and neck pillow became my saviours.

Don’t even get me started on the toilets!  There was one Western toilet and one squat toilet in each carriage.  Believe me when I say that I will hold for an hour, even longer if necessary, until a Western toilet becomes available.  Mum – do you remember when we bought those two packets of toilet wipes for $2…well they are priceless.  There is never any toilet paper and using a hose just doesn’t quite cut it to clean up.  Another thing I have learned when using the bathroom – if I’m wearing long pants, roll them up…things can get messy otherwise.

The train journey to Hanoi took 14 hours.  We boarded at 3pm and arrived on Wednesday at around 5am.  We purchased some dinner before hand and ate it cold on the train at about 6pm.  To pass the time we played cards, which by about 9pm turned into cards with the loser having to take a shot of $4 vodka.  I only did two shots…Jay Jay was the biggest loser with 9 shots.  At about 10pm I finally feel asleep.

After arriving at the train station in Hanoi we jumped in a bus and drove three and a half hours to Halong Bay.  The township of Halong Bay isn’t much to write home about, it really is just a stop over point for the Bay.  However the Bay is incredible.  It rained most of the bus ride from Hanoi and it was over cast and cloudy in Halong, however the islands still looked beautiful against the grey sky.

We spent about 4 hours travelling by boat around Halong Bay, as you are travelling out it looks like the islands are all joined together, like one giant mountain range, but as you journey closer you can see each individual island sprouting from the water.

There is a floating village in the Bay, where people live in floating houses with their cats and dogs and their children attend a floating school.  The locals offer boat rides and kayaks for the tourists.  Kirsty, Evan and myself opted for a leisurely row boat ride, definitely a great way to get up close and personal with the islands.  Our lovely lady rower took us through a cave like entrance into a opening on the other side.  One word – AMAZING!  I felt like I had entered a different world, maybe I was in the TV show Getaway, it was unbelievable.  For the first time in weeks and weeks it was peaceful and silent.  The lady stopped rowing, we all sat in silence and stared in awe as we bobbed around in the middle of an island. There was no tooting horns, no zooming motorbikes, no yelling, just birds in the distance and nothing else.

Back on the boat we sailed to a cave discovered in 1993 by a fisherman.  After trudging up a few stairs with every other tourist in sight, we disappeared from the sunlight into a massive opening.  The cave has been “blinged” up with fluro lights but still the size is impressive.

Today, Thursday 1 May (where did April go?) we drove back to Hanoi.  I’m enjoying a very quiet afternoon in my room catching up on my blog, photos and emails.  Interestingly enough the Vietnam government has banned Facebook and it cannot be found via the internet.  Each time I put the address in the page came up “Page could not be displayed”.  However I did some research and if you change the IP address it re-directs your laptop to another location and you can access.  How crazy is that!  I’m just hoping I don’t have the Vietnamese Government knock on my hotel door…

Tomorrow I’ll check out some of the sights Hanoi has to offer.  Friday night will be our last group dinner as the tour ends on Saturday.  I have really grow friendly with this great group of people and we have shared a lot of good times together.

On Saturday I can’t believe that I will be flying to beautiful Laos for my next adventure.  Until then take care and stay tuned 🙂

Picture are here.

Zx

 

Motorbiking in Hue

Monday saw the tour and I depart Hoi An via bus to Hue (pronouced Why).  Sadly most of us were nursing a slight hang over from the antics of the previous night.  Apparently we were watching the Chelsea versus Liverpool match (bloody English and their “soccer”) but really I was enjoying the cocktails.  $3.50 for two, yes you read correctly, two!

The bus ride took about four hours, following the beautiful coastline and climbing through the mountains.  We stopped at a small village called Hai Van Pass where the US Army had built bunkers during the Vietnam War.  You could even still see the bullet holes in some of the walls.

The temperature in Hue when we arrived was heaven…about 28`C and zero humidity – it was a wonderful change.  After a quick lunch we all joined in on motorbike tour of Hue.

To date one of the best experiences I have had – it was so exhilarating sitting on the back of the bike and cruising the back roads, rice paddies and villages of Hue.  The drivers that took us on the back of their bikes were cool, old, Vietnamese dudes and they knew how to ride!  Our first stop was to the rice museum to watch a Vietnamese lady give an Oscar-worthy performance on how rice was harvested and how fish were caught.

We jumped back on our bikes and cruised to the Tu Duc Tomb where Emperor Tu Duc has a tomb but is not buried.  He was buried in a secret location somewhere in Hue to ensure his remains would be untouched.  Sadly, the 200 men who buried the Emperor were all beheaded to ensure the secret was very safe.  Before Emperor Tu Duc’s departure he used the grounds for a place to relax and read poetry.  He also had over 100 wives but never produced a heir.

Next we rode to a beautiful, secluded spot to enjoy a stunning view of the Perfume River.  Some locals kids were also enjoying the view and celebrating a birthday with a picnic lunch.  Also in this spot were more US bunkers…

A short bike later we arrived at an incense making factory.  The lovely ladies at the factory also make the Vietnamese hats, which I had been eyeing off.  These hats actually have a “shadow” inside them and when held up to the light you can see a beautiful pattern.  I ended buying some incense and a hat – which I think I may turn into a lamp shade?

We then rode to the Elephant and Tiger Fighting Arena – a very depressing history.  It was used for elephants and tigers to fight each other to the death.  There were claw marks scratched deeply into the brick work; from a helpless tiger trying to escape his enclosure.  Very sad and heartbreaking.

Our final destination was Thien Mu Pagoda which is also a monastery for monks in training.  We were lucky to see them enjoying the afternoon playing hacky sack.  Our awesome drivers then took us for one last spin on the way back to our hotel through the crazy roundabouts and roads of Hue.  A really enjoyable afternoon.

Link to the photos is here.

Z

Shopping in Hoi An

The group and I arrived in Hoi An on the morning of Saturday, 19th April.  The night before we departed Nha Trang on the overnight train.  Sadly the train wasn’t as nice as the previously one – the carriages had already been used, so there was rubbish and used bedding.  And the worst thing – cockroaches!  I killed three cockroaches on Lisa’s bed and after that I told her to sleep with her thong (shoe) and fend for herself – they just kept coming!  Poor Lisa is from the UK so didn’t sleep a wink most of the night – she was extremely scared.

On a side note, silly me totally forgot that English and Europeans call their thongs “flip flops”.  Therefore when I told this story to the girls in the next carriage they were highly impressed, if not slightly confused that I had killed cockroaches with my “g-string”!!!

Hoi An was extremely hot – I don’t think I have ever been so hot in my life, definitely hotter then Cambodia – it was 40`C and 100% humidity.  I ended up with sunburn on sunburn and drank about 4 litres of water and was still drenched in sweat.  We arrived too early to check into the hotel, so again hot, sweaty and tired I headed out to look around.  That’s the only bad thing about the overnight train.  I enjoy sleeping on the train, its comfortable and you don’t lose a day travelling but the arrival time doesn’t exactly suit me – I always feel tired and I always want a shower once getting off the train.

Hoi An is just a charmer, it has a lovely riverfront but also quaint streets and alleys.  The buildings are incredibly old and rustic and the paint is peeling and the shutters are twisted but it just adds to its beautiful character.  I think I would rate Hoi An as up there as one of my favourite cities.

It is a UNESCO declared city and more then 800 buildings have been preserved so walking into many of buildings means they look like they did several centuries ago.

Hoi An is filled with approximately 300 tailors and tailor shops – its known for producing top quality clothing and suits at cheap prices and within short timeframes.  We were recommend a tailor by Ratha, our CEO, so myself, Kirsty and Sophie headed there to get measured up.  What a great way to shop – flicking through brochures and looking at the models to pick a style, then browsing the massive choice of materials for a colour and then being personally measured to ensure the clothing suits perfectly!  I ended up getting four dresses made for $35 each!  I went back to the store at about 6pm that night for my first fitting and then returned the next afternoon to collect the dresses!  I was really impressed with them, really good quality and they fit.

I spend the rest of the day wandering the streets and tiny alley ways.  There are some incredibly funky stores with excellent quality handicrafts.  I went a bit crazy and purchased some art work from a local artist and a beautiful tea pot and matching cups from a shop that assists disabled locals in gaining work.  Most of the jewellery is hand made and I purchased a bracelet from another store.  Once I get to Hanoi I will post everything home for safe keeping.

On Sunday I went on a tour of My Son with Austrian couple Stefan and Natalie.  My Son (pronounced Mee Sun) is about an hour from Hoi An and it is religious temples from around the 4th century.  My Son was rediscovered by the French in the late 19th century.  Like Hoi An, My Son is a UNESCO world heritage site.

During the Vietnam War the US forces bombed a fair amount of the temples as Viet Congs were living here.  The temples didn’t survive well but many are still in tact and you can see the imprint of the bombs landing in the earth.

After the tour of My Son, we journeyed down the Thu Bon River by boat and docked at a small village to see their handicrafts and daily life.  Apart from another very hot day, it was a great experience.

Photos are here.

Z

 

Like a Pig in Mud

I came all the way to Vietnam to lay in mud!

Yep, that what I did on my second day in Nha Trang along with two of my tour buddies – Lisa from the UK and Jay Jay from the Netherlands.

But its not just any old mud at Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre, this is therapeutic mud that apparently can assist with joint pains, decrease stress levels and cure skin diseases.

It was actually a lot of fun and extremely relaxing.  We were allocated a large spa bath which was pumped full of mud!  It just came out of the pipe like water would!

Next step was to then get into the mud…such a crazy feeling and extremely slippery but the mud actually had a smooth, silky texture.  It wasn’t cluggy or sticky or smelly, it was pleasant.  Once I was laying in the mud it was really enjoyable and felt really nice over my skin.  I even treated myself to a mud mask and poured it through my hair.

It was a quiet day at the Springs so we were lucky enough to spend at least half and hour playing in the mud and relaxing before taking an open air shower with natural mineral water.  The water is straight from a spring and usually is about 37`C and extremely salty, especially when it gets in your mouth.  It actually took a good scrub and plenty of water to get the mud off and I’m sure I still have a little bit of grit left in my hair!

After taking a shower we moved on to the “pressure cleaners”.  The mineral water is projected from stone walls and it gets rid of the final layer of mud plus also provides a nice body massage.  Then it was time for another bath, this time in the pure mineral water. Hopping into 37`C isn’t exactly relaxing but after sticking with it for a few minutes, it’s amazing.  The water is meant to penetrate the skin and open the pores.

The last stop at the Springs was the waterfall, where the mineral water is dumped over the side of rocks and feels like a hundred hands are rubbing your head, neck and back!

I think overall we spent about 3 hours at the Springs and it cost about $7 plus $4 for the 15 minute taxi ride.  Afterwards my skin and face felt so smooth and clean and I was definitely relaxed.  I’m not sure if my togs have survived – I washed them twice and I’m still finding grit in them!

Link to the photos is here.

Z

Tunnels, Trains & Nha Trang – Southern Vietnam

After a short break I am back on the blog and into the travelling…feels great to be moving again.  I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam earlier this week and have decided to join up with a tour group to explore Vietnam.  I have never been on a tour before mainly due to the fact that I don’t like being told what to do (most importantly when to wake up!) and also because I wanted to prove to myself that I am smart, savvy and independent enough to travel the world by myself.

However, travelling solo is actually quite exhausting – planning activities to do during the day and the best way to see them and how to get there; organising and booking transport to the airport or hotel; keeping track of expenses and budgeting (its a full time job!) and eating by myself can get boring and very lonely too.  Don’t get me wrong I have loved every moment of my trip so far, I’ve met some fantastic fellow travellers and I think I’ve done pretty well to have not got lost or ripped off but I’m very much enjoying being guided and having someone do the hard work for me!

The tour that I am is a little different to your normal run of the mill tours – once the group arrives in a destination its basically “free time” and its up to ourselves to decide what we want to do – the Chief Experience Officer (CEO) or tour guide does help to work out the finer details and if the whole group wants to do the same activity they book the lot.  All accommodation and transport is organised and usually the group goes out for dinner together.  You can see the tour I’m doing here:  G Adventures

So back to what I have been up to…

For me the Cu Chi Tunnels were the highlight of Ho Chi Minh City.  The Tunnels are about a hour and a half drive from the city and were built by the Viet Cong soldiers (Northern Vietnamese Communist) during the Vietnam War.  Personally I find the history of the Vietnam War extremely interesting (especially with Australia’s controversial involvement – Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh and Bush Tucker Man ‘Les Hiddins’ anyone?) but being in Vietnam makes it even more so.  More about the Cu Chi Tunnels are comments in the photos.  What I have noticed in Vietnam is the amount of people that are physically deformed – its widely known that the US Forces used many toxic chemicals during the war and this is blamed for around 50,000 children who were born deformed by parents who were affected by the chemicals.

My first overnight sleeper train ride occurred last night from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang – it took about 8-9 hours, was around 700 kilometres and I was super excited!  We boarded the train about 7.15pm and left the station at 8.00pm.  I shared a sleeper with Lisa, from the UK and Natalie and Stefan; an Austrian couple.  It was actually a really enjoyable trip – obviously it was dark so I couldn’t see anything but I slept quite well and was rocked to sleep by the  “clanking” side ways of the cart.  Being woken up at 4.30am was not pleasant and knowing that we could not check in to the hotel straight away also sucked.

Whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready, I enjoyed a super strong Vietnamese coffee, followed by a walk to the beach to watch sun rise and the locals doing their exercises.  This ranged from Tai Chi, swimming in the ocean, walking, jogging and various stretching and twisting movements.

As my room was still not ready after breakfast I decided I was already awake, sweaty and dirty…I may as well just head out for the day.  I took a beautiful, long walk along the beach which is very stunning – compared to other Asian beaches it is clean and the water is clear.   I was then approached by a old cyclo driver who offered to take me to the main sights for 200,000 Dong ($10) – why not!  I hadn’t been on a cyclo as yet and what better way to see the town by bike and really getting amongst the traffic.

Our first stop was to the Catholic Cathedral built in the early 1900’s that sits on a small hill.  What makes this interesting is the fact that not many Vietnamese are Catholics and the architecture is different to that of surroundings buildings.

Next we cycled (or my friend did the hard work!) to Long Son Pagoda or where the Big Buddha is perched.  The Buddha is about 21 metres in height and can be seen from in town.  I must have dropped the ball slightly here because I never get done over by touts but I had two young ladies who were extremely persistent and I just couldn’t get out of their game!!  They latched on to me and told a story about them living in the monastery as they were orphans (yep, haven’t heard that one before) and they could show me around (NOTHING is free in Asia!).  Somehow I ended up with a frangipani flower behind my ear and incense sticks in my hand (first rule…never accept anything!) and being told about the leaning Buddha statue.  It just happened so quickly!!!!  Then came the money talk…you just need to make a donation to the orphanage…buy these postcards….they are only 300,000 Dong – about $15!!  No way I said, you just followed me, I’m not buying anything!!  Then the nastiness started…but we gave you incense, we are orphans, you are a bad person, we wish you bad luck…and they were extremely spiteful and bitter.  I did feel bad for the incense and seriously I could have and should have walked away whilst being verbally abused but I did the dumb Western tourist thing and pulled 50,00 Dong out of my wallet, it was quickly snatched by one of them who then walked away quicker then I could say ‘Buddha’.  The second lady demanded more money – but no way was I giving in – you share that money I told her – no, no, she already took – too bad – no more money!!!  She cursed at me in Vietnamese and I made a break for it.  I’m blaming the 4.30am start for the slip in concentration.

But in all honesty I don’t believe in giving money to beggars or touts.  I’ve discussed in length with other travellers, tour guides and locals what you should do but I believe it just encourages a never ending cycle.  Every single day in Cambodia I was approached by young children – usually around six years old trying to sell postcards and braclets.  It is extremely confronting when a young, dirty boy in tatted clothes stands in front of your table at a restaurant with sad puppy eyes and palms open while your tucking into a big fat meal.  I have watched other tourists wave the children away only for the children to persist…the tourist gives in a shoves money into their hand or people genuinely believe they are doing a good deed and smile to themselves once the child skips away to the next table.

The touts and beggars are also getting smarter.  The latest scam is a young mother holding a baby, you wave the mother away, but she yells ‘no money, no money, I need milk for my baby’.  Conveniently there is a shop close by selling milk for a baby for usually around $15US…expensive for a reason…once the tourist has left the milk is returned to the shop keeper and the profits split!  In most cases these scams are run by someone behind the scene who forces the young women to go on the street or the parents of a child who would rather the child work then them.  My opinion anyway…

The Buddha was really cool, extremely large and jolly looking.  The views from the Buddha were beautiful and Nha Trang actually reminds me of Nice in southern France.

I then visited Cham Towers, a crumbling building built between the 7th and 12th century.  It is used by the Buddhists to worship and give offerings too.   While I was there, locals were organising a large feast.

My last stop was to the local markets.  I only spent about 30 minutes…you can never look at anything without “Madam, madam, you like, you buy”.  I couldn’t even look at a bunch of bananas without being harassed!

Tomorrow I spend another day in Nha Trang before departing on the overnight train to Hoi An and then Hue.  Lisa and I are planning on spending the morning soaking in mud at the Thap Ba Hot Springs.  Apparently they have healing powers – I’m hoping they might ease the nasty sunburn I endured this morning!  I am black on my arms and my face looks like a lobster!  Nice combo!

Enjoy the long weekend – I’ll be thinking of the Aussies who fought in Vietnam.

Z

You can check out the pictures here 🙂

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap Lake Floating Village

Hi Everyone

Sorry to have been a bit slack with the blog.  I’ve attached some photos from my time in Siem Reap, where I spent about a week.  I also visited the Angkor Wat temples and the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake.  All amazing and Siem Reap is up there as one of my favourite cities in the world.

Next stop is Vietnam – I’ll be heading to Ho Chi Minh City first.

Photos of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap Lake

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Helping to “Free the Bears” in Cambodia

Many years ago whilst reading a magazine I came across one of those awful pictures of a beautiful bear kept in a tiny cage being used for its bile to make herbal medicines.  I think I started to donate $10 every month and hoped the money was going somewhere worthwhile and making a difference to at least one little bear’s life.

Well on Monday I got to see for myself where my money ended up by visiting the “Free the Bears” sanctuary about one hour south of Phnom Penh.  As part of a way to raise money the sanctuary allows visitors to come in and be a bear keeper for a day.

I picked a great day to visit as I was the only visitor there!  Pisi, Manny and Safia took great care of me and showed me around the whole park.  There are two types of bears living at the sanctuary – the Sun Bear and the Moon Bear.

The Sun Bear or Malayan Sun Bear is quite small in size and has short, sleek fur.  They have a white bib shaped marking on their chest  The Moon Bear or Asian Black Bear is larger in size, with thick fur and they have a white V shape over there chest.

The sanctuary is incredible – they have put a lot of money, time and hard work into creating a really nice environment for the bears.  I really dislike animals being kept cages and was a little disappointed to see the bears behind fences and electric wire.  However the staff explained to me that the bears have many acres of land to roam in and they are provided with a large cage to sleep in during the night if they want.  They are only locked in the cage when the handlers need to go into the paddock to scatter fresh fruit and vegetables and collect their balls (explained further on).  And most importantly the bears really seemed happy and normal.  Sadly these bears will never be able to be released back into the wild as poachers are still hunting them and their forests are disappearing quickly.

As part of my bear keeper-ing I helped create “enrichments” for the bears.  This involves filling a big plastic ball full of two bananas, a hand full of bean shoots, a hand full of dog biscuits, a spoonful of strawberry jam and a hand full of morning glory (a plant).  Manny, Safia and myself had to fill 30 balls.  Once completed, we stacked them into a small trailer and took them to the bears, where we had to throw the balls over the fence.

Well…the bears have an amazing sense of smell and boy did they come running on their little hands and feet as fast as they could!  I’d never seen anything like it when they each grabbed a ball, rolled onto their back and held the ball up with all fours and stuck their tongue into the ball, pulling all the food out on to their bellies.  It was just gorgeous!  They absolutely love “ball time”.

Also as part of the bear’s enrichments, I was able to go into their paddock (while they were locked away of course) and hide fruit, berries, morning glory and veggies for them to sniff out and find once released again.  Its part of them working for their food and not just getting it given to them.  It was great fun then watching them come back out into the paddock and run around smelling and finding the food I thought I hid well from them!

Can I just say that macaque monkeys are horrible, nasty creatures.  They climb into the bears enclosures and steal their food sometimes before the bears have a chance to find it!  Safia and I were standing together and she threw a stick at one of the macaques to try and chase it away but it lurched at us with its ugly face!  Safia screamed!!  I screamed!!  The macaque screamed and ran up a tree!!

Also in the same area is the Phnom Tamao Zoo/Rescue Centre (http://phnomtamaozoo.com)  I’ve copied this from their website:

Most of the animals at Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center are endangered rare species and are confiscated from traffickers or saved from poachers traps which are too sick or too young to be survived in the wild, so they are kept to be taking care and Phnom Tamao Zoological Park become their permanent residents. Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center is the home for at least 96 of birds,  mammals, and reptiles, in a total of around 1,000 animals.

Manny and Safia also took me around this part of the park to visit the gibbons, a tiger, a lion and more elephants.  They do a great job rescuing these animals and taking care of them.

You can see the photos of the bears here:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.741992379178973.1073741832.100001046523887&type=1&l=1da1864b6d

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Trying to get my blog up to date tonight…I’ve been having too much fun in Phnom Penh!  Crazy how I thought I would only pass through the city, maybe have one day of sightseeing and keep travelling turns into five days.  Thats another thing I am loving – having no plans!  I just kept asking the hostel if I could extend for another night and today I decided I had better move on so I booked a plane ticket and then some accommodation in Siem Reap.  My lovely travel agent emailed me today and I remembered I have booked a tour in Laos for May…which means I need to visit Siem Reap and head to Vietnam!

So…PP…what a crazy, crazy city!  This is very much what I think of when I think of South East Asia.  Its third world.  There are beggars on the streets, old men missing limbs in wheelchairs selling books, young boys and girls selling necklaces and flowers, women pleading for money – showing their babies to you with welts on their feet, tuk tuk drivers yelling ‘lady, lady, tuk tuk!’, rubbish piled in gutters, families of four or five squeezed onto a motorbike, Monks holding orange umbrellas to match their robes, markets bustling with locals – open fires cook meat and quaint tree lined streets inspired by the French.  Wow!

The city has grown on me…and I’m sad to be leaving.  Its an incredible city and the Khmer are extremely shy to begin with but the most kindest people once they get to know you.

I have spent my days visiting the National Museum, Wat Phnom (a pagoda or temple built in 1373 – many people come and pray for good luck  whilst making an offering of incense or fruit), browsing in shops – there are many local art galleries and handicraft stores, getting lost in the Russian and Central markets (lots of knock offs!) and walking along the riverfront of the Mekong.

The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Muesum were heartbreaking to go and visit.  I took a tuk tuk about 30 minutes out of PP to visit the Killing Fields.  They allow visitors to walk around the Fields and provide an excellent audio commentary (kind of like an old-school walkman with headphones – you press the number corresponding to the guidepost and it explains what your looking at – its spoken by a survivor.  I won’t go into details because what happened there is extremely distressing.  Many Khmer I have spoken to had family affected by Pol Pot’s regime and they all same the same thing “we pray it never happens again”.

Tuol Sleng was a school pre 1975 and then turned into a prison during Pol Pot’s regime and has now been created into a museum.  It was very moving being in the same space that someone was being held as a prisoner as much of the buildings have remained untouched.  Pol Pot’s regime were meticulous in keeping records and there are hundreds of photographs – each person that arrived at the prison was photographed and there are many photos showing how they tourtured the prisoners.  Many people were crying as they walked through the buildings.

On a much happier note I was very lucky to have met a local Khmer – Raj – who was the same age as me.  He was kind enough to invite me to dinner with his brother and his girlfriend so I could experience a Khmer night out!  Raj speaks English fairly well, his brother is okay and his girlfriend none!  So Raj was the go between!  We went to a Cambodian BBQ restaurant – nothing fancy – but where the locals eat.  Everything is cooked on wood-fired drums a the front of the restaurant to prove they are clean.  I was clearly the only Western there and got some very funny looks but also plenty of smiles!

Next we went to a nightclub where we caught up with more of Raj’s friends.  The band wore shiny pants and sung in Khmer!  I was shown how to dance Cambodian style – mainly moving your hands around and moving your feet from side to side.  I got laughed at when I showed a few of my Western moves – but they were very interested!  I think I ended up back at my hostel at around 1am!  I felt extremely lucky to have experienced real Khmer life…it was a fantastic experience.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I am flying to Siem Reap.  I was going to take the bus, but I really can’t handle anymore Khmer driving and a 45 minute flight sounds so much better then a 5 hour hellish bus ride.  I am planning to catch up with two Canadian girls I met at the elephant project and we will visit Ankgor Wat together.  I am thinking I’ll only stay in Siem Reap until the weekend and then fly to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam for the next leg of my journey.

Stay tuned this week…a post and photos of the Sun and Moon Bears to come.

Photos of PP are here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.741980549180156.1073741831.100001046523887&type=1&l=de19b24828

Zxo