A Travellerspoint blog

Island Time and Monkey Traps

sunny 33 °C

Watches are packed away. We eat, drink and sleep when we want. Figuring out what day of the week it is requires effort – effort that we have no interest in expending. We are truly on island time…

It feels like months since we left Bangkok, where we spent a day getting organized for our trip to the islands after our travels through Vietnam and Cambodia. Rather than fly south, we took the early morning train so we could watch the sprawl of Bangkok slowly give way to a rural, then coastal landscape, catching glimpses from our 2nd class car of the Gulf of Thailand. We rolled into Chumphon late in the afternoon, a small town that is primarily known to travellers as the staging point to jump off trains & planes and onto ferries to the islands. Unbeknownst to us, our arrival in town coincided with a rather upscale wedding that was taking place in London. We hopscotched our way down the street from travel agent (ferry tickets) to market (ferry snacks) to the bar (food and beer) where we watched the Royal wedding with locals and the British expat owner of the Farang Bar (who promptly stood with hand over heart and joined in when “God Save the Queen” rang out over the TV speaker).

Early the next morning, after a couple of debates with staff about whether we really had ferry reservations (thanks to Lee-Ann’s instance of double checking the evening before, we did), we walked down the very long, very creaky, bamboo jetty out to the high-speed catamaran. A smooth hour and a half trip across the Gulf of Thailand deposited us on Koh Tao, also known as Turtle Island or simply “the rock”. After the obligatory check of the lodgings available, we settled in a beautiful little garden bungalow set just back from the quiet north end of Sairee Beach. We had the best of all worlds; surrounded by a lush garden 20 seconds from the beach and the 30 degree water, and a 10 minute beach walk from the numerous beach bars and restaurants, where freshly caught fish was barbequed every night amongst tiki torches. The chill island atmosphere is just a cover though, masking the energy that floats below the surface; Koh Tao is a scuba diving mecca. We took advantage of the great prices - and warm water - with Lee-Ann obtaining her PADI Open Water diving certification and Warren refreshing his rusty skills. We did our first dives together, enjoying spectacular coral reefs, hanging with a hawksbill sea turtle and watching our dive master get chased by a very pissed off trigger fish (they are very territorial and bite). Warren also encountered his first shark while snorkelling on Koh Tao – exciting for sure, but also a little intimidating when you’re the only one in the area and the shark is between you and the shore. After a week or so, we jumped back on the ferry for what was this time a very rough ride (no less than half the passengers were sea sick) further south to Koh Phangan.

Situated between the diver’s island of Koh Tao and the more developed resort island of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan is known as the island where you do…nothing. There are activities of course – the main one being the famous Full Moon Party that happens each month on the beach at Haad Rinn. We’ve opted to pass. We visited the beach and town, as well as talked to many locals. Besides being way too contrived for us, we’ve heard the horror stories (and seen some of the actual scars) about spending a night drinking Red Bull and moonshine with 30 thousand of your closest friends. Instead, we headed to the opposite end of the island, to the small north-western bay of Haad Salad where, after months of travelling, we’re now working on perfecting the art of living life in the moment by doing absolutely nothing. Our days are composed of laying by the pool, walking the beach looking for shells, floating in the crystal clear waters of the bay, watching the sunset from our now local watering hole (called aptly enough “My Way”) and deciding what and where to eat from the selection of beachside restaurants. Although we did invest some energy one day to go diving at Sail Rock (known as one of the best dive sites in the Gulf and included a descent/ascent by way of a 35 foot chimney), on some days we don’t get much further than our lanai that comes compete with a Thai daybed, hammock and a view of the bay through the palm trees. If it sounds idyllic…it is. And what has made it more intriguing is we have met many people that have been seduced by the magic of island living and made it more permanent, living proof that the life that so many of us dream about can actually be made a reality. Just a few examples:

 E. Grew up outside of Detroit, moved to NYC, studied law and became a specialist in corporate litigation. After eight years in practice, decided he needed a change, quit his job, sold his stuff and went travelling for a year. Ended up on Koh Tao and decided to try diving since everyone else was doing it. Fifteen months later, he is still on Koh Tao working as a dive instructor…

 O&Y. Had vacationed many times in Thailand, getting away from the less than tropical weather in their homeland of England. On return home from their last vacation, Y was so depressed at returning to “normal life” that as a lark, she talked O into listing their home for sale. She never expected it to sell – it was more just a way of holding on to the dream of escaping. Seven days later, their house sold – they took it as a sign and made a leap of faith. Ten weeks to the day they returned to England from their vacation, they were back in Thailand on Koh Phangan. That was two years ago…

 L&D. Two English teachers from Britain who lost their way as they were heading into Asia for work. Instead they wound up on Koh Phangan and opened a wonderfully ramshackle beach bar. Perhaps they hadn’t lost their way after all, but in fact found it as that was three years ago…

There are many, many more stories here that demonstrate the dream is possible. Does that mean we are staying? That perhaps this blog is our subtle way of saying we won’t be leaving? No. At least for now. We still have too many things we want see and do before we settle into permanent chill mode. However, it makes it very clear to us (and hopefully to those of you reading this), that the crazy dream of running away to a tropical island can come true if you’re willing to take a chance and adjust your expectations of what you really need and want. Consider the South Indian Monkey Trap…

A hollowed out coconut is anchored to the ground and partially filled with rice. Upon discovery, a monkey reaches in through a selectively sized hole in the top of the coconut and grabs a fistful of rice only to find that he cannot extract his hand while holding the rice. Upon hearing the hunters approaching, the monkey is loath to give up his bounty, even though with some more searching, he would of course discover more food in the jungle. A choice is made by the monkey – keep the reward and loose his freedom or let it go, taking a risk he will find what he needs and be free.

As we look out over the infinitely changing shades of liquid blue that is our front yard, we can’t help but ponder the similarities for so many of us. It makes us wonder what many of us might be holding on to that, in the grand scheme of things, we not only don’t need, but would be much, much happier without.

Hmmm…

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Posted by Baxters 00:31 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand Comments (0)

Cambodia: Past, Present and Future

overcast 36 °C

Sitting in a little bar on Koh Tao overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia already seems so long ago, probably due in large part to the striking contrasts to our current locale. However, the memories of Cambodia will be etched in our minds for many, many years to come. Admittedly, we keep referencing each experience as some form of "mind-blowing" or "life-altering", but by your good grace (or maybe the type of short memory that allows politicians to be elected repeatedly), we have to claim the same sentiment yet again for Cambodia.

An up and coming Cambodian artist recently quoted an old Khmer proverb: "Knowledge and beauty is the cause of sadness". It was a strange statement but one that stuck with us – and as we traveled through the country, we began to understand just a hint of what that statement means.

We travelled to Cambodia from Saigon on a bus that was driven by none other than Mad Max. After making our way through the Vietnamese border crossing (semi-organized chaos) and the Cambodian crossing (super-efficient including digital photos for our instant visa), we were officially in the Kingdom of Cambodia. It was immediately apparent we were in a different county for a couple of reasons: the first was the run of casinos starting 50 meters from the border; the second was the homes, changing from skinny and tall to wide and short on stilts with a platform underneath for eating, lounging and sleeping (and to keep the main home clear of the water that comes with the rainy season). What also quickly became apparent as we moved deeper into the countryside was how different it looked from Vietnam. Gone were the lush palm and deciduous forests, and the massive fields of green that stretched forever. They were replaced by vast open stretches of comparatively barren brownish-green fields, widely and randomly dotted with single room, corrugated tin and thatch roofed wooden homes. We passed through many villages as well (at the speed of light thanks to Mad Max). The villages were captivating in their simplicity, but were also a statement about the poverty and lack of basic infrastructure throughout most of Cambodia.

We rolled into Phnom Penh, picked up our packs that had been less than delicately thrown from the bus (and apparently tampered with - glad we're anal about locking things) and made our way to the Hotel California. We picked it because it was known to be cheap, clean and in a good location to see the city. Turns out the owner Jim is an American ex-pat who has created a bit of LA in Cambodia. While we always want to eat local food, we have to admit that after several months on the road, Baja fish tacos and cheeseburgers with fries were hard to resist (and we didn't).

We spent a day exploring the small, compact city, which in many ways reminded us of Saigon but with some noticeable differences:
> Some of the street foods were quite different, a notable one being small snails eaten as a snack from their shells with chopsticks;
> An abundance of SUVs, required to travel the dirt/mud roads outside of the city;
> Despite its size, a seemingly greater infiltration of western cultural icons such as coffee shops, fashion magazines, music videos, restaurant chains and celebrity gossip rags;
> NGOs everywhere - Peace Crops, Oxfam, US Aid...;
> A noticeable number of people living on the streets. Our ex-pat Jim told us they come from the rural areas looking for work and a new life in the city, and;
> Compared to every city we have been to during our travels, Phnom Penh is very quiet. There were simply not as many cars, bikes or people.

The last few points speak to the recovery Cambodia is still experiencing from its dark days under the Khmer Rouge. We were told that to understand Cambodia today, you need to know what happened during the years 1975 – 1979 because it is still talked about, referred to, written about and reflected upon by the citizens of Cambodia, a part of their past with ongoing implications today.

To help us understand, we started with the National Museum, immediately building a genuine admiration of how rich and advanced the ancient Khmer civilizations were. Then we moved on to the more recent and darker history; Tuol Sleng. Once a highly regarded school, in 1975 it was turned into a prison-cum-torture chamber where members of the Khmer Rouge interrogated 20,000 people, including children and even babies (all documented with photos and bios of each and every person) even remotely suspected (or simply accused) in any way of not supporting the vision of a brand new "Year One"' socialist, isolated and independent agrarian society. Of the 20,000 that went in, only 7 came out alive. Not all were killed at Tuol Sleng, most were transported about 15km outside of what was then an empty Phnom Penh to Cheung Ek or what is now known as the Killing Fields.
.......

After three attempts at writing something, we have opted to not describe our experience at the Killing Fields. The enormity of the horror that took place here was simply too overwhelming for us.

Millions lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge and while the regime was defeated in 1979, the damage it inflicted could not be undone overnight. The Khmer Rouge had left a country with no infrastructure, no cultural venues, no schools, no hospitals and no banks. Nothing. Religion had been dismantled. Even money had been abolished. Most of all, the leaders, the doctors, the musicians, the artists, the teachers...they were all gone. In 1980, Cambodia was starting over. Even a partial understanding of this recent and tragic history, sheds some light on why things are the way they are. And simultaneously highlights how exceptional the Cambodian people are!

Almost everyone we encountered was so incredibly warm and friendly. Cambodians are wonderfully joyful and happy- and oh, how they openly love their children! Smiles are everywhere, reminiscent of our time in India (Thailand should consider handing over their "Land of Smiles" tagline to Cambodia). Our stay in Phnom Penh, though emotional at times, was richly rewarding - we loved the city. We would have liked to stay a bit longer, but it was time to make our way north to Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor.

Departing Phnom Penh, we faced another 6 hour bus ride, fortunately without Mad Max at the wheel; unfortunately with karaoke playing a good part of the way. We arrived with our sanity intact, hailed a TukTuk and zipped to our hotel. Once checked in, we made our way over to the tourist district, better known as "Pub Street". Completely populated with every form of tourist cliché, it was in fact a very fun place to hang out, full of inexpensive restaurants with good food, $0.50 pints of beer, the usual assortment of souvenir junk and t-shirts for sale and a crazy number of fish-massage stalls - you sit and dangle your feet in an oversized fish tank, drinking beer while the fish eat the dead skin off your feet. Kind of creepy but very popular! We ended up hanging out in this part of town every night, finding our own watering hole in the back of the Night Market. We knew it was for us by name alone; The Island Bar. While our nights were spent loitering on Pub Street, the bulk of our days were spent in a slightly older local just outside of town: Angkor National Park.

Angkor is a huge site, so we hired a TukTuk driver to move us around the park. We visited the most famous sites such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm, known as the jungle temple, home of the "Tomb Raider" doorway made famous to movie goers by Mrs. Pitt. Line-ups can reach an hour long for photos here, but our timing couldn’t have been better; crowds were very light throughout the park, especially when we visited some of the smaller, less visited sights. These turned out to be our favourites - quiet, except for the sounds of the jungle (including a rather large branch that randomly broke off and dropped 50' to the ground right by us); almost no people (in one instance it was only the two of us and three Buddhist monks at worship), and; mostly unrestored, allowing us to view the beauty of the ruins as they have been twisted, lifted, toppled and ingrown by the jungle. An added bonus for us was that our efforts to understand some basics of the Hindu religion while in India were well rewarded as we could easily find countless Hindu artefacts throughout the ruins that pre-dated the Buddhist influence. Angkor was a wonderful experience, perhaps with the exception of the hawkers that stalked you at every site – sometimes quite assertively. Our most memorable moment by far was arriving on the second morning, off the regular tourist route, just after a thunderstorm. The colours were alive, the air smelled of fresh flowers and steamy jungle, the cicadas were almost deafening… Tromping over lichen covered stone and through red mud made one feel like the first explorers to discover this ancient civilization (and a bit like Indiana Jones).

Despite its rich ancient past, Cambodia is a young country - figuring things out, making mistakes, trying to embrace and quickly catch up to the 21st century while simultaneously working to heal the wounds of the recent past. Many are succeeding (at least by western standards) - there is no shortage of large homes and high-end luxury autos. Yet most people still live very simple lives, selling produce or crafts, or working in the burgeoning service sector, living a rural existence - often within or just outside the city itself. For example, one young woman we met, after working a 16 hour day serving Siem Reap tourists, would ride her bicycle home at midnight (no light) to the bamboo home in the forest (no electricity or plumbing) that she shared with her mother and two younger brothers. She knows full well that there is so much more to the world but acknowledges her options are limited (she left school after grade 5 to work). But she shares all of this with a 1000 watt smile and unfettered grace that is so typical of the Cambodian people we have met. And despite all the sights we have seen - good and bad - that's what we'll ultimately take from Cambodia; many, many smiles and hopefully just a little more grace.

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Posted by Baxters 23:38 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia Comments (0)

Saigon and the Mekong Delta

South Vietam

sunny 35 °C

We flew from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and upon exiting the airport, were instantly impressed with the pulsing energy of this very modern metropolis. Our first observation as we made our way through the night time city was the incredible number of motorbikes. While we have become almost oblivious to bikes swarming about us over the past few months, HCMC made us pause. There are literally millions of motorcycles and scooters swarming the streets and alleys – a direct result of the pace of Vietnam’s economic development. Less than a decade ago, the city was home to 4 million people with 300,000 motorbikes; today, with investment pouring into the city and many young people leaving the rural areas to make their fortune, HCMC has swelled to 8 million people and 4 million bikes. Yes, you read that right; 4,000,000 motorbikes in HCMC, plus cars, trucks, buses, vans, bicycles…all the usual suspects you expect to find in a bustling Asian city. As a result, sidewalks are a misnomer – they are for commerce (storefronts, street restaurants, street bars, vendors of all sorts) and parking motorbikes (and cars…lots of cars), leaving pedestrians walking on the streets. Luckily, after several months walking the streets of Hong Kong, India, Bangkok and Hanoi, we are quite adept at dodging traffic and crossing streets filled with moving vehicles.

We spent several days in HCMC, taking our usual approach of walking everywhere in order to get a feel for the streets, the people, and their lifestyle. The central district of HCMC – District 1 - comprises everything from high-end designer brands, 5 star hotels, and luxury automobiles to a gritty, low rent backpackers/tourist area with guest houses, street kitchens, 60 cent beers and “very friendly” bar girls. In addition to our casual wanderings, we spent some time exploring the War Remnants Museum and went out to see the Cu Chi Tunnels in an effort to gain a greater understanding of what both civilians and military personnel experienced during the American/Vietnam War. Both were eye opening.

While the War Remnants Museum has a decidedly pro-Vietnam stance (no surprise), regardless of your opinion about the policies and reasoning behind the conflict, the horrific images documenting the suffering on both sides, and the aftermath of Agent Orange (still going on to this day), make it absolutely clear that war is the most destructive force on our planet - one that we humans just happen to have 100% control over. As long as we continue to treat each other - and the earth and all its inhabitants - in this manner, we really don’t have the right to call our species “civilized”. The Cu Chi Tunnels provided even more perspective. After a decidedly propagandist introduction film where several Cu Chi “American Killer Heroes” were showcased, we walked through the outdoor exhibit and were instantly taken aback by the enormous size of the craters left by the B52 bombings. The devastation must have been beyond belief. However, despite the Strategic Air Command’s best efforts, the Cu Chi Tunnels remained intact and provided the supporters of the North a field of operation to fight the South. We learned that the tunnels were not just a means of moving undetected from place to place, but that people actually lived in them, often remaining underground for weeks at a time in a maze that encompassed a 250km long network with up to 4 levels ranging from 3 to 10 metres below ground, comprised of everything from kitchens to surgeries to bomb-making shops. With a very short crawl through a dark, humid tunnel (which had been enlarged to provide access to “larger Western frames”), the tenacity and resiliency of the people “living” here during the war is something we cannot begin to fathom.

Through all of this, something else began to emerge in our discussions with locals. HCMC, like the rest of Vietnam, is changing fast…very fast. This pace fuels the citizens of HCMC, or rather the Saigonese as they call themselves. To the residents, the city’s name is and will always be Saigon. “HCMC is the name they use in the North, not in the South” is one of the many comments we heard that clearly indicates unification of North and South is still far from complete, despite the many monuments celebrating the contrary. We heard one man refer to another as a communist to clarify to us that he was in fact not a communist. Another gentleman told us the story of how his family fled Hanoi to Saigon in the ‘60s to escape the communist environment, only to have it catch up with them when Saigon fell. On Christmas Day 1975, at the age of seven, he watched his father be taken away for “re-education” and subsequently die in prison four years later. This was not a unique story. There are clearly some wounds that have yet to be healed between North and South - wounds that developed after the fall of Saigon and America's exit from the region. When you spend some time talking with the locals in the South, it becomes clear that Hanoi’s vision of HCMC does not necessarily align with that of Saigon’s.

However, Saigon (as we also call it now) is moving too fast and furious to let the past keep it from its future; there is money to be made. One fellow we met wants to open a shop so he can get in on the game. However he cannot until he becomes classified by the city administration as a “Saigonese”. To do this, he must have a steady job and own a home in the city. Except…he can’t own a home unless he is Saigonese - a classic Catch 22. However, when things are moving at the speed of Saigon, there’s always an ea$y fix; buy your house illegally and slip some Official 30 million dong (about $1,400 CAD) and your problem is solved! While this all seems a little, well…different… to our Canadian sensibilities, we took advantage of one of the benefits of all this financial activity in Saigon; its abundance of fantastic restaurants. We capped off our stay in Saigon (and bonded in spirit with our friends who were discovering Madrid at the very same time) by treating ourselves to some amazing tapas and sangria at a fabulous Spanish restaurant. We have almost completely stuck to local cuisine throughout our travels, so we really enjoyed our indulgence (did we mention the amazing sangria…).

Next on our agenda was the rice bowl of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta. But how? Like Ha Long Bay, the tour options were a little overwhelming. There are probably as many tour operators as tourists, offering packages from one to seven days, that will cost you pocket change all the way to busting the bank. It was all a little hard to get our heads around as we’re really not tour group people. However, trying to decide where to go and what to see on our own was equally daunting. In the end, we went for a cycling tour that Lee-Ann discovered – and it was definitely the right choice. Our group included to two fellow Canadians, a Parisian and our amazing Vietnamese guide, Hai. We spent three days cycling through endless green rice paddies, along narrow paths winding beside small canals (and crossing even narrower bridges) and through small villages as well as taking various local boats, ferries and canoes across rivers and through the backwaters and floating markets. Friendly locals constantly yelled hello and waved as we rode by, as we were in areas where few tourists visit. In fact, over the course of our three days, the only time we saw other westerners was cruising through Cai Rang's floating market (which is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta).

Our accommodations during the tour included a night at a guesthouse built on stilts over the water, and a night at a homestay where the owners showed us great hospitality. The accommodations were very rustic, and provided us the opportunity to sleep under mosquito nets for the first time… it was kind of like being at camp! During our 50+ kilometers of riding, we had the opportunity to stop and visit a couple of local homes. The first was located in a large fruit orchard and we were generously offered beautifully presented bowls heaping with fresh pineapple, watermelon, dragonfruit, jackfruit and pommello – a treat after cycling in 35 degree heat! The second was the home of a remarkably happy, very friendly 76 year old gentleman who shared with us his home made snake wine (yes – there were snakes, among other things that we preferred to not look at, fermenting in the wine!!) along with fresh, dried and baked bananas. What a treat!! All in all, it was an incredible experience during which we truly saw “real” life in the Mekong Delta, and worth the sore butts we gained by the end of the trip. Even more so as we learned that the Mekong is changing right along with the rest of Vietnam; what we saw will not be around for long. Bridges are being constructed everywhere to provide a better transportation infrastructure that will, in turn, bring more investment to the region, which will bring more industry, which will bring more people... This is Vietnam today. What about tomorrow?

The general consensus of people we talked to throughout Vietnam is that in three to four years, the country will be a significantly different place than it is today. Good or bad? Only time will tell. For us, we feel incredibly fortunate that we were able to experience the Vietnam of today; one that while having one foot out the door to the future still has the other firmly planted in the traditions and daily life of the past.

Next up…Phnom Penh and the Kingdom of Cambodia.
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Posted by Baxters 09:48 Archived in Vietnam Tagged south vietam Comments (0)

Good Morning, Afternoon and Evening Vietnam!

sunny 35 °C

Our decision to include Vietnam in our travels was somewhat based on the unspoken feeling that we probably "should" since we were in SE Asia anyway, rather than any long-held desire to specifically go there. Admittedly, there was a certain mystique about it – if that’s even an acceptable word given the reason why.

At the risk of tripping over the immortal Basil Fawlty’s cry of “…and don’t mention the war!”, the Vietnam, or rather the American War as it’s referred to here (among other things), was hovering in the background – as it does for most western visitors. Aside from the countless movies and TV shows that have come out over the last 30 years, Warren still remembers sitting with his Dad – maybe 6 or 7 years old - and seeing news footage with Walter Cronkite commentating. It’s a vague, distant memory for sure, but one that for some reason lodged with him. So... when we finally arrived in Vietnam, not knowing really what to expect, we were – to say the least - rather pleasantly surprised when we almost instantly fell in love with Hanoi and subsequently, Vietnam.

Coming from a city that is 125 years young, it was mind-boggling to wander through a city that has just celebrated its 1000th anniversary - the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. We spent 3 days exploring the city - wandering aimlessly through the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and its centre out to West Lake and around the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum (which was closed, relieving us of the decision of whether we really wanted to see an embalmed Uncle Ho). Hanoi is a delightful blend of the best of Asia mixed with the best of Paris. It is comprised of millions of bikes of every kind; sidewalks filled with tiny plastic chairs on which to sit and indulge in the amazing street food or drink a fresh Bia Hoi beer (daily made draft; about $0.20 a mug); tiny winding streets with tall, skinny buildings (imagine 4 metres wide and 7 stories tall); expansive tree-lined boulevards with imposing French colonial buildings; dogs not cats (a change from Bangkok); masses of people going in every direction; and street hawkers selling everything from freshly cut pineapple to tiger balm to “same same” Ray Bans. We jumped in with gusto and enjoyed some great street food - especially the nem cua be (crabmeat spring rolls) - and some, well... interesting things that we could not identify (might have been pig’s feet….?). The coffee was excellent, and almost made up for the absence of masala chai! Vietnamese coffee is thick and rich, served with sweetened condensed milk and is equally good either served hot or over ice. We even found a rather dingy ex-pat bar and spent an evening cheering on a football match (4 – 2 for Man Utd over West Ham) while the Heineken bar girl tried to sell us more and more beer.

Although we didn’t make it to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we did visit the Hoa Lo Prison – better known to most in the west as the "Hanoi Hilton". While there was, of course, a section documenting the American POWs held here (including the flight suit John McCain was wearing when he was shot down), the main focus was about the Vietnamese political prisoners held by the French (the prison was in fact built by the French). Even in its sanitized version, it’s pretty clear that this was not a place you wanted to spend any time (the guillotine and associated photos made a pretty bold statement). Along the way, we also visited the Military History Museum. While the propaganda machine was clearly in high gear, as we learned from India’s view of the British rule, there is certainly more to the story than what we learned in the west. Without judging (remember from our India blogs – we’re trying to avoid that), what became crystal clear as we learned more about Vietnam and its centuries of dealing with adversaries and invaders, is how remarkably resourceful, resilient and truly amazing this country is. And flexible…

We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are in a socialist country – usually when we are cursing yet again that Facebook won’t load. Aside from the many propaganda billboards and banners throughout the city and along the roadsides, the introduction of Doi Moi in 1986 (google it) has brought capitalism out of the dark recesses and ignited the innate entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese. Business is everywhere – every nook and cranny is filled with some kind of venture. Western goods and stores were present throughout Hanoi – including no shortage of designer names from Paris, Milan and New York. And although the number of motorbikes and scooters outnumbered the cars by about a zillion to one, we saw no shortage of Mercedes and BMWs, and quite a few Bentleys cruising the wide boulevards throughout the French Quarter.

Despite our immediate love affair with Hanoi, the reality of 10 days in large cities and 3 international airports took hold; we were ready for a break and a chance to decompress in a more relaxed environment. Ha Long Bay filled the bill... and then some! We had read and heard much about the boat tours on Ha Long Bay, which is located northeast of Hanoi and encompasses 1500 square kilometers filled with almost 2000 islands and islets. There are so many tour operators and so many boats that it's a bit of a crap shoot - you could easily end up on a junk-er rather than a junk. However – score! - we landed on a gorgeous boat and spent a couple of days floating around the islands being fed sumptuous seafood feasts and hanging out with a dozen or so people from the four corners. With a few sailing trips under our belt, we’re quite used to wind, waves and chop and expected as much. However, Ha Long Bay was calm as glass and the stillness of the water along with the misty, overcast skies provided an ethereal tranquility to the experience. Ha Long Bay has been named a world heritage site and, after a couple of days floating among the karsts, gaping at the sheer beauty of the region, there is no doubt it deserves such recognition. And like so many amazing sites prior to this, we took too way many pictures, with none of them doing justice to what we have seen.

From Ha Long Bay, we travelled back to Hanoi and jumped on an overnight train south to Hue. Hearing Vietnamese sleeper cars described as “sleeping on a bag of bricks next to a jackhammer”, we splurged on a first class, "soft berth" sleeper car. Based on our experience, we opted out of any further train journeys while in Vietnam. To be fair, it wasn't bad. We shared our 4-berth cabin with a nice Swiss couple (and just one cockroach), and the porter provided us with complimentary water and toothbrushes. He also woke us up at 6:30am to offer us cup-o-noodles, although the first stop wasn't until 8:00am. Half an hour before reaching Hue, we were roused from our cabin and sent to stand in the aisle with our luggage until we arrived at the station. Ah - the joys of travel.

We spent a day in Hue, a good deal of it wandering throughout the remains of the 19th century citadel and its Imperial City. Only about 20 buildings remain out of the original 148, but work is underway to slowly restore the entire site back to its original glory. Nonetheless, it was awe inspiring to walk among the ruins and find pockets of ornate detail ensconced within the crumbling walls. The grounds were beautiful and still with heron populated canals and artificial lakes created for what were then royals’ private gardens. Evidence of less tranquil times was also in no short supply. Holes and pock marks were everywhere, silent testimony to the bitter fighting that took place here during the 1968 Tet Offensive - the direct cause of all the missing buildings. Still, if the battle scenes in the film “Full Metal Jacket”, which take place in Hue, are anywhere near accurate, is simply astounding that anything is left. After an evening out with a wonderful young British couple, and a great night’s sleep in a room with floor to ceiling windows that allowed us to view the brick wall of the building a mere12” away from us, we stepped on the bus for our next step south to the ancient town of Hoi An.

Hoi An was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, its ancient core a rich architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences dating back to the 16th century. Because of this, it is now quite firmly entrenched on the tourist trail with all the typical trappings. We had learned from other travellers, you either love it or hate it – the difference being that the lovers were able to get beyond the packaged surface and discover the real Hoi An. We cautiously planned for a three day stay; as we write this, it is the morning of day seven in Hoi An. Guess which side of the fence we ended up on?

We’ve spent days wandering the old town; rented bicycles to ride to the beach and swim in the South China Sea; ate mouth-watering Vietnamese street food; splurged ($6.00!!!) and had a pizza (Warren even had his first cheeseburger since leaving home); we rented a scooter and buzzed for miles through the rice paddies; we met water buffalo (not always friendly ones…); worked our well trained (nod to India) “no thank you” with the relentless hawkers of…everything; ate banana pancakes, fresh fruit and enjoyed the darkest, richest coffee ever every morning by the pool of our little hotel; had drinks over a lagoon in a bar constructed of nothing more than bamboo and some wooden planks… In short, Hoi An turned out to be an unexpected vacation from our adventure. That might seem like a strange statement, but those who have travelled know that after a few months of perpetual motion, some stationary time does seem like a holiday unto itself.

And now that we’re rested, it’s time for us to carry on. After we post this, we are slinging on our packs, catching a bus and heading an hour or so north to Da Nang. We’ve opted to not stop here. We passed through Da Nang and down its coast on the way to Hoi An. Da Nang is home to what was once known as “China Beach” – and based on the pace of development along the beach – will probably be known one day as the “Cancun of Vietnam”. Chatting with people, this is where the exuberance of Doi Moi gets ahead of the sensibilities of prudent planning. It’s a bit like the wild west. One long-time ex-pat noted that how this region can be subject to intense flooding from the monsoons – not to mention typhoons and tsunamis - and wonders what the future will hold now that the 25’ sand dunes that guarded the land have been bulldozed flat for hotels. Time will tell. But we’re not waiting; we’re heading right to the airport.

We’re off to the next stage of our Vietnam adventure – south to Saigon and then into the Mekong Delta, where we hope to get off the grid for a bit and see if we can maybe find the route less travelled into the land of the Tomb Raider where Angor Wat awaits…and perhaps even access to Facebook.
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Posted by Baxters 21:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

One Night In Bangkok...

semi-overcast 23 °C

As the song says, "one night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble". Well, try four nights.

Actually, we were very well behaved...at least that's our story. Not necessarily an easy achievement since we stayed just a heartbeat away from the (in)famous Khao San Road, known as the global epicenter for backpackers. To be brief - all the stories are true. It's a people watcher's paradise, especially at night when everyone comes out to play. The street is teeming with dreadlocked 20-somethings mixed in with the street food vendors, portable bars and hawkers of all thing imaginable (and some not!). There were also a suprising number of farangs (Caucasians) well beyond their twenties - some looking like they have been here a very, very long time with no plans to escape anytime soon. While many travellers make it to KSR, some never get beyond it's boundaries, happy to stay within this alcohol soaked bubble. However we managed to escape on occasion and stretch our legs a little further.

Bangkok is a city that was built with water being it's lifeblood, the Chao Phraya River being it's main artery. For about a dollar, you can travel to a multiude of spots throughout the city on a river ferry. For about $0.25, you can jump on a klong boat and travel to countless destinations on one of the many canals that link to the river (just make sure to pull up the tarpaulins that line each side of this low-slung boat or you're likely to end up with some very polluted canal water in your face). Linked to this ancient water-based transportation system is Bangkok's very efficient Skytrain and MTR. Once you add in buses, hot pink taxis and the zillion or so tuk-tuks zipping around, you can access pretty much anywhere in the city. We made the most of this network but, like we always do, we mainly used our favorite form of transport - our feet.

We visited a number of the "must see" sights such as the Emerald Buddha (awesome!) and the Grand Palace (do not make fun of the King!). While the sights were amazing and absolutely worth the effort, they were also tourist hell, jammed with packaged tour groups and the associated hawkers of souvenirs and guide services. Once we ticked off a few of the tourist boxes, we used our favorite form of transport to do what we love best when traveling - pick a direction and just start walking to see what we might see. And we saw a lot in the narrow backstreet areas of Bangkok.

Life - like India and Hong Kong - is very much lived on the street. Merchants and markets abound, as do the food venders. We never had to worry about going hungry as we were never more than a few steps away from food - whether in a stall in one of the many markets we discovered or from a simple stand on the street selling barbecued chicken and pork...or other things, like bugs. We ate it all, except the bugs. Warren was particularly happy to have meat back in his diet after being a two-month vegetarian in India (something he admits was much easier to do than anticipated). This abundance of food being prepared and eaten outside is rewarding for the city's cat population - they're everywhere, some more than a little mangy (though looking much better than most of India's dogs).

Speaking of food, it's time to eat again! We're off to find our evening meal in Bangkok (and a couple or few ice cold Chang beers). Perhaps we'll hit the little watering hole down the canal from our hotel, complete with one of Bangkok's many ladyboys as bartender. Or maybe just some chicken and noodles on the street - dinner for two about $2.25. BTW - Beer prices in retaurants run $2.00 to $3.00 and about $1.35 in the store for the big bottles (or about $10.00 for a small beer at Bamboo Bar at the Manderin Oriental - worth it though to hang out in one of Bangkok's oldest bars where the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger have quenched their thirsts).

Bangkok has been fantastic. And we can't help notice two things that stand in such contrast to our two months in India. For a city of 8 million, Bangkok is very quiet. Perhaps it actually isn't, but compared to India, it is silent. The second is how much easier it is to cross the road. You still have to dodge speeding cars and tuk-tuks, but it is not uncommon for a driver to slow down or even stop so you can cross the street. We are considering stopping back here again for a couple of days when we complete our Vietnam/Cambodia circuit, which just happens to start tomorrow morning when we head to Hanoi (which is even more famous for its street food than Bangkok).

As we head out for dinner, we'll be using the handy people watcher guide from Wikitravel which is pretty much spot on. We've included it below to give you an idea of the characters kicking around Bangkok. Enjoy...

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More than any other place in Thailand, Bangkok offers wonderful opportunities for just sitting and watching people go by. Here's a partial checklist:
> University student — Many of Thailand's universities continue to enforce a uniform, and what a uniform it is: for girls, it's a sheer white blouse with a short black skirt, and the little shiny logo button on the blouse tells the cognoscenti which particular university she is attending. Boys wear a white dress shirt and black trousers.
> Office lady — Sharply clad in infinite variations of solid pastel shades, this human houseplant mans customer service desks and pours tea in offices across the capital.
> Bargirl — Mostly short and dark-skinned farm girls from the provinces, a bargirl can be spotted a mile away thanks to her pink hotpants and
the kilo of gold around her neck. Often found in happy financial symbiosis with the sexpat.
> Sexpat — Fifty-plus, bald, beer belly, stained shirt, lovestruck expression and a hairy arm wrapped around a girl too young to be his daughter. He's found what he's looking for.
> Ladyboy (kathoey) — Either tall, large-handed, wears too much makeup, possesses an Adam's apple and has large breasts... or has accomplished the art of camouflage so well that you just filed her/him as an office lady or bargirl.
> Expat — A farang walking about purposefully in dress shirt and long trousers, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it's 35 °C outside. For
extra credit, try to distinguish between the scruffier English teacher type and the jet-setting expense package type. Or try classifying them by the old joke about the three types of expat — missionaries, mercenaries and misfits.
> Yuppie — Like every other big city, Bangkok boasts a coterie of young professional types who are hip, well-educated and relatively affluent.
Similar to the Expat, they usually sport business attire and are likely to be hurried — except they probably know a shortcut, and they aren't sweating so profusely.
> Khao San Road vagabonds — Braided hair, bead necklace, sarongs, shorts and floppy pants, either on their way to or just back from the
beaches. Dazed and bewildered when torn apart from the familiar surroundings of Khao San Road.

Posted by Baxters 08:18 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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