Friday, 30 July 2010

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Having spent two days on a slow boat up the Mekong river, it was a relief to cross the border into Thailand and spend some time in Chiang Mai. We visited the Tiger Kingdom, where there are about 34 tigers in captivity. I went in a cage with 3 large tigers, about 5 years old. I had my picture taken with them and stroked them. It was amazing that you can get that close to them and they didn't seem to mind. They sleep most of the day and have become desensitised to the pats and hugs from people. The tigers are born into human so are used to people. Jo picked the baby tigers option, she got to play with them, they were so cute.

South East Asia has been an amazing experience!

Luang Prabang, Laos

It was the worst journey ever from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. It was supposed to take 7 hours by bus, however there had been mudslides on the mountain roads the night before due to heavy rain so no vehicles could get through. It was a nightmare! At one point we had to get off the bus and walk through the mud barefoot in the pitch black, as the road was that muddy the bus could slide off the edge of the mountain. It actually went down the road sideways....scary! The mud came up to our knees so no point wearing our flip flops...I was not happy! We had begun to think we would be sleeping on the bus on the mountain, but eventually the police let all the smaller vehicles through and we arrived in Luang Prabang at 1.30 am having left at 8.30am in the morning, 17 hours instead of 7 hours!
The day in Luang Prabang has been one of my favourite days. We spent the day at an elephant rescue centre. We rode on an elephant bareback like the Mahouts do, it was fantastic. After that we rode the elephants for an hour through the jungle in a basket. After lunch we bathed the elephants by sitting on their backs in the river with a scrubbing brush, it was so much fun! My elephant kept smacking the water with her trunk and splashing me and everyone else!
The following morning we got up at 5am to offer sticky rice to the monks. Every morning they leave their wats and walk along the streets which are lined with people, locals and tourist offering food, which they put in their pots and have for lunch. They wouldn't eat otherwise as they do not have money to buy food. It was difficult not to look at the monks as they passed by, you shouldn't make eye contact with them. It was a surreal experience.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng was a 5 hour bus drive from Vientiane. Vang Vieng is a very small town, and tourists mainly seem to come here for tubing. This involves sitting in a large ring floating down a river, where there are lots of bars you can stop at along the way, offering free shots etc...It is obviously quite dangerous drinking alcohol with water and not something I wanted to do, as I am not so keen on drowning!
We hired bicyles and rode along a dirt track through villages and paddy fields, with large mountains looming out of the mist as a backdrop. We went to the river at the foot of a mountain where there were little huts on stilts to rest in. I had a swim in the river, it was freezing cold and took my breath away. It was really beautiful and very enjoyable, even though it was pouring with rain the whole time.
There are tribes that live in the mountains called Hmong and Yao, although they are being encouraged to move into the lowlands where there are better facilities.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Vientiane, Laos

It was an 11 hour bus ride from Hanoi, across the Vietnam border into Laos. The landscape has changed immensely, Vietnam is quite flat, but Laos has huge mountains with a mysterious mist hanging over them, it's very beautiful. Vientiane is the captial of Laos, which is surprising as for a capital city it isn't very busy, with traffic or people, unlike Phnom Penh and Hanoi. We took a tuk tuk to to Pha That Luang, meaning 'world precious sacred stupa'. It's Lao' most important national monument and a symbol of Lao sovereignity and Buddhism. It was very impressive.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

We took another overnight sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi, 13 hours this time, arriving in Hanoi at 4am. We were supposed to go straight to Halong Bay, however typhoon Conson was on its way there, so we stayed in Hanoi and planned to go to Halong Bay the following day instead. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh was a former president of Vietnam. His body is on display here and so is his palace and the house on stilts where he used to live and also died there too. We then visited Hoa Lao prison where American soldiers were detained during the Vietnam War, nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton'. It was interesting to hear the North's version of the war, where it is the Americans who have 'invaded' Vietnam to try and take over and were successfully driven out. They also claim that the Americans were treated well in the Prison hence the name, however having seen the traps set for the Americans in the Cu Chi forest it is hard to believe. We also visited the Temple of Literature, however by this time we were flagging having been up since 3.30am so wandered round in a daze.

The following day, we went to Halong Bay, about a 4 hour drive from Hanoi, where we boarded our private junk boat for the afternoon. Halong Bay is very beautiful with lots of rock jutting out from the sea. We had a delicious seafood lunch on the boat, and then visted some caves before heading back to shore. The caves were very impressive with lots of stalagmites and stalagtites, making all sorts of strange shapes, one even looked like a snakes head.

The majority of the population of Vietnam are farmers, and most are very poor which is one of the reasons they eat dog here, as everything has to be eaten in order to survive. Vietnam is a very beautiful country, with lots of lush green countryside, the majority of which is paddy fields, and I have thoroughly enjoyed travelling through it.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hoi An, Vietnam

We spent 14 hours on the overnight sleeper train to Hoi An. The train wasn't as nice as the previous one, the sheets were not clean and I was glad of the sleepsack I had brought with me. We had visitors of a different type this time, several cockroaches wanted to share our cabin with us and we had to remove them before we could get to sleep.

Hoi An is a very picturesque port town with lots of small craft shops and tailors in the old quarter and a very ornate Japanese covered bridge across the river. It's a good place to have clothes and shoes handmade, so I had a dress and silk top made, they fit perfectly. Hoi An is my favourite place so far in Vietnam.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

We took an overnight sleeper train from Saigon to Nha Trang. It was an interesting experience! There were 4 of us sharing a cabin, Jo and I were making ourselves comfortable on the bottom bunks when Jo suddenly spotted a small mouse crawling up the telephone wire! Chenda came in and looked everywhere for it but couldn't see where it had come from and Jo began to think she had imagined it. We settled down to sleep when I spotted the mouse poking it's head out from between our rucksacks. After that we both found it difficult to sleep as thoughts of the mouse crawling over you in the night kept us awake, and the train was very noisy.

Nha Trang is a coastal city with lovely sandy beaches. We went to some mineral mud baths which are supposed to be good for your skin and then spent a day on the beach, before catching another overnight train to Hoi An.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Saigon, Vietnam

We travelled over the Cambodian border into Vietnam. We stayed overnight in Chau Doc, which is in the Mekong Delta, the most fertile farming area in Vietnam. It's a large area of paddy fields, streams and canals. We took a boat trip along the river to a floating Market and a fish farm. The following day we had an 8 hour bus ride to Saigon. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, about an hours drive from Saigon. It was really interesting to learn about the Vietnam war from our guide Hai who was a veteran of the war. He fought for the south side, supporting democracy and the Saigon government. The North we g fighting for Communism to reunite the country. The Vietcong were guerilla fighters, supporting the North but were among the villagers of the South so it was difficult to tell who was on whose side. The Cu Chi tunnels are a large system of underground tunnels which the Vietcong used to fight against the South army. They used booby traps, 2 meter deep holes in the ground covered by leaves with large bamboo spikes at the bottom to trap and maim their enemies. The tunnels have really small openings and inside there is only room to crouch and walk and even crawl on your hands and knees in some parts . The north won the war and renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh city. They also put all the higher ranking soldiers from the South army into 're-education' camps, which were really labour or concentration camps. Hai's family weren't allowed to visit him in the first year but after that they were allowed to visit him and bring him food and medicine, otherwise he may have starved to death. Hai's first hand account of his experiences during the war really brought home the harsh realities of warfare. The guides on our trips have been really good and their first hand accounts of their experiences are so interesting.

Ho Chi Minh city is full of motorbikes and scooters, with a population of 6 million, over 4 million people own a bike. The roads are crazy, bikes coming at you from all directions and to cross the road, you step out and just keep walking at a constant pace and hope the bikes will avoid you. Scary!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

S21 and the Killing Fields, Cambodia

It was a very interesting but quite harrowing afternoon at S21 and the Killing Fields. In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High school became Security Prison 21 (S-21). The Khmer Rouge created the detention centre for interrogation, torture and killing prisioners after confession was received. Our guide was quite explicit in describing the methods of torture and how the prisioners were treated and it made me feel quite sick. He himself had lost his father and 5 brothers and sisters during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was their leader and ordered the deaths of over 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. He was a communist who killed the educated and middle classes as he wanted everyone to do as he ordered, and uneducated people were less of a threat to him.

After the prison visit we went outside of Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Prisoners were taken there after being held at S-21 to be killed. There are 129 communal graves, 86 have ben exhumed and revealed the remains of 8985 people, many bludgeoned or stabbed to death to avoid wasting bullets. There was a killing tree which was used to bash children and babies to death, held by their feet.
It was very sobering to walk around and think abour the horiffic things that had happened there. Children were brainwashed to become soldiers and could kill members of their own family if ordered to. Soldiers were also killed at this site as after a while they knew too much about the regime. Only peasants were safe and they remained in the countryside. It was a very interesting day with lots of food for thought.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was a six hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a surprisingly ok journey since we travelled on a public bus. Plenty of leg room and airconditioning. There was lots of intersting scenery on the way, mainly farmhouses built on wooden stilts. Phnom Penh is a crazy city, the streets are lined with street sellers, tuk tuk and motorbike taxis and the roads are very difficult to cross if you value your life! It seems to be a free for all with little regards for traffic lights and even motorbikes driving on the wrong side against the flow of traffic, insane!
In the evening we went to a restuarant that supports children from an orphanage, and afterwards went to a cool club, Chenda seems to know the best restaurants and clubs and so far we haven't had a bad meal. It's fairly cheap to eat here, about 3 U.S dollars for a meal, usually rice, noodles, or curry, really great food!

Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor are awesome. We visited the 3 main temples, which were built between 802 and 1432. The first temple Angkor Thom is a walled and moated royal city which was the last capital of the Angkorian Empire. Bayon or the Jungle temple has been used in Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, it was my favourite temple. It was built around trees and now the roots are supporting some of the walls and growing on the top. The biggest temple Angkor Wat, is a Hindu temple, the other two are Buddhist. It was a spectacular sight, a really great and awe inspiring day.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We crossed the Thai/Cambodia border overland at Poipet. It took over an hour to cross, first of all for immigration to check our passports, then through quarantine, and then finally to arrivals for our arrival cards into Cambodia. Phew! What a lot of queueing! Actually worse than the airport. It was a 6 hour drive altogether from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Our tour leader, Chenda is Cambodian, so was able to tell us alot of intersting stuff about Cambodia. The rich are very rich and the poor very poor, similar to other developiing countries. 80% of the population are farmers and one third of them live on less than one U.S dollar a day. The government is corrupt and if you have money than you can buy your way out of anything, so only the poor get punished for wrongdoing.

In the evening we took tuk tuks to have dinner at a local farm, in a village cooked by a local family. We sat on the floor on cushions in a decked area and tried some local dishes, noodles, curry, mixed vegetables and steamed rice. It was delicious, afterwards we played games with some of the children from the village, and then took a tuk tuk to the night market in town. We had a fish massage, sounds strange so I had to try it! There's a small pool with lots of fish in and you sit on the edge and dunk your feet in. The fish come and eat all the dead skin off your feet. It really tickled to start with but after I got used to the sensation it was quite pleasant. My feet are much smoother now! A great first day in Cambodia.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Bangkok, Thailand

Jo and I arrived in Bangkok late afternoon and then took a walk around the area near our hotel, and after walking for half an hour ended up in the Silom Road area of the city. There were lots of street food sellers on every pavement, the smells were enticing, although they made Jo feel sick. We ate at a local bar with tables on the pavement and watched the world go by.
The day after we decided to explore the Grand Palace. It was spectacular, very ornate buildings, sparkling in in gold and jewels, with lots of Buddha statues. It was built in 1872 and consists of the Royal residence and throne halls and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We then hired a Tuk tuk which took us to the Temple of the White Buddha, Temple of the Black Buddha, the Marble Temple, the export centre, where you can buy cheap gems and then the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. I loved riding in a Tuk tuk, a great way to see alot of Bangkok in a short space of time, however once we had seen everything, the driver took us to a gem store and a clothing store, because if we bought something he would get free gas, so that was a bit annoying! Later that day we met up with the rest of the Gap adventures group and went out for a Thai meal, which was really good and cheap. On the way home our taxi driver had to ask a Tuk tuk driver where our hotel was and then crahsed into the back of a tuk tuk. Luckily no harm done. An adventurous first day!