Thursday, 9 April 2009

Easy Riders

There have always been 2 things that I said I would never do: 1. jump out of a plane; 2. ride on a motorbike. Now before our mum's start having palpitations, we having been doing any parachuting! But maybe I'm getting a bit more daring in my old age because we have been riding motorbikes with the Easy Rider's in Central Vietnam. I now know how a dog must feel sticking its head out of a car window at 40mph. My face has been sand-blasted, my eyes have been blow-dried and I don't think my rear will ever recover, but what a ride!

Upon arriving in the hill town of Dalat we found a place somewhat akin to Britain: temperatures of around 20 degrees, grey skies, familiar vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots & peas), and affordable, drinkable, local wine - I was in heaven! We were transported from the bus stop to our hotel on the back of motorbikes and I'm afraid I was hooked. The Easy Riders are a freelance group of guys who offer trips around the country by motorbike. We booked up with 2 guys for a day in the local countryside and we were whisked around to waterfalls, flower gardens, vegetable farms, and a silk worm factory. I was a little disappointed when the guys picked us up as Mike got a big black and chrome motorbike to ride on and I got what I can only describe as a large moped! Still it was fun, so much so that we decided not to travel by conventional bus to our next destination on the coast, a journey of 150km, we'd go by motorbike instead!
From Vietnam

From Vietnam

The romanticism was lost a little when the guys came to pick us up a few days later andthey were both on mopeds. They were larger and more powerful that the one I'd been on a few days earlier, but they didn't look nearly so cool as the big bikes we'd seen around town and were led to believe we were getting. Yet again, you never quite get what you expect in Asia. On the way out of Dalat we visited Penn Waterfall that had a self-drive roller coaster to get down to it - it was hilarious & so unexpected. An ingenious way to make yet another waterfall a bit more fun!
From Vietnam

From Vietnam

We left the city behind, weaving in and out of the traffic and being honked by cars and buses as they passed. It was a little unnerving to be on the other side, as we are used to being in the cars and buses doing the honking as they career past the mopeds. We passed through small towns and went past fields and fields of vegetables as we started our descent to the coast. The road started to get quite steep as it wound down and around the hills and suddenly we crested a hill and there was the most breath-taking view across the plain at the foot of the hills all the way to the sand dunes and the ocean.
From Vietnam

All of a sudden my driver pulled over, honking at Mike & driver in front to stop. We'd got a flat. We all got off and looked at it for a few minutes, there was a bit of discussion in Vietnamese, and then my driver said "It's OK. No one to fix it. We carry on." Indeed there was no one to fix it as we were on a winding mountain road, so on we went very slowly and quite wobbly, and quite worried that we could go sliding off the road but my driver held it together and after a couple of kilometers we made it to a small town and a small store where we could get a new tyre. This store was a place where you could get anything: new tyres, some oil for your engine, some fish sauce, a sack of rice, some beer, some shoes, a hat, a mat for the floor of your house and probably everything else a discerning Vietnamese housewife might need on a daily basis.

The town we had stopped in was the Vietnamerse equivilent of an English council estate. All the houses were square and uniformly spaced, all exactly the same. My driver told me that the Government built the houses for poor people who have no land to farm. It appeared as though the Government had exiled these people to the most godforsaken place in the country. There was absolutely nothing around, it was unforgivingly hot, with no breeze and no sound - it was absolutely silent. A very strange, almost eery place.

We set off with our new tyre and the road got worse and worse. Sitting on the back of a bike, with a large back pack strapped to the seat behind me and my legs up on high pedals is not the most comfortable place anyway, but when the road disintegrates into pot holes and gravel, not bumping into the driver and affecting his driving and keeping my feet on those pedals became a challenge. Not to mention that I had long ago lost any feeling whatsoever in my backside and thighs. As the road improved we rounded a bend and came head long into a 30 knot wind. It was so intense, and we spent the rest of the journey battling the wind as we were blasted with sand and soil.
From Vietnam

We finally made it to the coast after 6 hours of almost non-stop riding, It was exhilarating, exhausting and distinctly uncomfortable, but I'd do it again!

Mui Ne is a beautiful stretch of coastline - 22km of white sandy beach, turquoise water and backed by one hundred foot high sand dunes. The sky is dotted everywhere with kites as daring guys and gals go zipping across the waves in 30-40 knot winds. As I wrote this blog I was sitting on the beach, watching Mike learn to kite surf, buffeted by the strong but warm wind, and drinking from a fresh coconut that a lovely lady in a conical hat had opened for me with a machete. Life doesn't get much better and we lingered for a while.

Kite-Surfing in Mui Ne

Fastforard to Viet Nam, we've been here for a couple of weeks now and will likely catch you up on the places we've been soon. I thought I will blog about one of the more eventful experiences I've had in Viet Nam so far.

Gemma and I arrived in Mui Ne with sore legs and sore bums after a 6 hour motorbike ride from Delat (more on that later). Mui Ne turned out to be probably the windiest place I have ever been (and I've visited Wellington on many occasions) and deservedly the Kite Surfing capital of Viet Nam.

Given that I've sailed for few years, had a the occasional windsurfing lesson and I'm never one to turn down a new experience or activity, I decided, with (as it turned out, unjustified) confidence, to give this kite-surfing lark a go. The lessons started out simple enough, we began on the beach learning the basics of controlling the kite, moving it back and forward through the "wind window" and understanding where the power was generated from.

From Viet Nam

Once I had some of the basics in hand the instructor took us out into the water, initially with me holding onto the back of his harness, then me with the kite by myself. The first action in the water didn't involve a board at all, just learning to "body drag", where you use the kite for power and your body as a rudder to manouver yourself upwind, followed by running the kite in a figure 8 to drag yourself downwind (used to provide power when actually on the board). None of this was terribly difficult and despite drinking about 3/4 of the South China Sea, I was happily comming to grips with the basics. Next on the agenda was body dragging with the board in hand and learning to recover the board by heading upwind to fetch it. Oddly enough, if the board ends up more than about a foot behind you (upwind), you can't reach for it as you will probably lose control of the kite and drop it in the water (or worse).

From Viet Nam

From Viet Nam

After 4 hours I was ready to try and get up on the board. The instructor happily informed that this part (which is the hardest) is the bit that can't really be taught, it is mostly feel, especially with regards to amount of power needed to get your body out of the water. Feeling just a little nervous I headed toward the water to give it a shot. Getting out of the water involves moving the kite gently in one direction, then dipping hard back in the other direction to generate the power to lift your body out of the water and start surfing. I had a good few attempts without success, so my instructor called me back in and informed me that wasn't really giving it enough power, before sending me out for one final run. So I headed back out and dragged myself to an appropriate spot, lined up the kite downwind and pulled the board onto my feet. I took a couple of deep breaths and moved the kite out to the right then back hard to the left, unfortunately a little too hard, well actually a lot too hard and the kite lauched me clear of the water. My board instantly came off my feet as I flew face first back into the drink with enough force to rip the helmet off my head and open up the clips and zipper on my life jacket! Feeling a little roughed up and a slightly deflated at not being able actually get up on the board, I dragged myself back to the shore and after 5 hours decided to call it quits.

I chatted briefly to the other instructors and found out that most people tend to spread their lessons over a few days (5 hours in a single day is pushing it) and generally don't get up on the board until about 7 hours, so I reckon I did okay. I think I'll probably give it another go when I get back to the UK.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

A gastronomic delight!

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, has been one good meal after another and suddenly all of those pounds I am sure I had lost are back :-) Never the less, "Friends" , a restaurant run by an NGO to help street children off the streets, into job training and education, and back into society, serves the most delectable Cambodian/Western fusion tapas ever! We over ordered (as you do at tapas restaurants because you worry you won't have enough) and we feasted on roasted tomato hummus, green salad with red wine vinaigrette, Cambodian curry, port meatballs and grilled fish. Mm mm mm! So many flavours that we haven't had for ages like mint, vinaigrette, honey - oh how deprived we've been! We really were fat Westerners, stuffing our faces, but it was all in a good cause. Our most expensive meal to date, coming in at a grand total of US$20 - that's 1/3 our daily budget, but who's counting when it tastes this good!

Enough of the food already. Phnom Penh. It's hot. Disgustingly, drippingly hot. It's not possible to look anywhere but the ground, or gesticulate in any way without attracting the attention of an enthusiastic Tuk-Tuk driver who believes that your look in his direction, or the slight wave of your hand as you were discussing where next to eat, indicated that you wanted to go in his Tuk-Tuk. Polite as ever, they are just trying to earn a living, I find myself saying a constant stream of "No thank you's" and Mike's patience is wearing very thin :-)

So the capital is quite unlike Bangkok as it is not nearly as developed, but the traffic is still bad. The main difference, and a really positive one, is there's no smog. I don't think there is any industry here of great significance. We undertook the walking tour described in the Lonely Planet, much to the amusement of Tuk-Tuk drivers and stall owners - it's only crazy foreigners that walk! We investigated the main areas of the city and ended at the Royal Palace and trod lightly on the silver tiles at the Silver Pagoda where the floor is covered with tiles of pure silver, each said to weigh 1kg.

We ended our time in Cambodia learning about the country's gruesome, tragic recent history - the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, which is very topical as the first person responsible for the murders has just gone on trial. In just 3 years 3 million Cambodians were killed by execution or by being worked to death in the fields. The Khmer Rouge were backed by the Chinese who wanted to empty the country of all but 5000 Cambodians, who would be kept as slaves, to make room for Chinese settlers. We visited the killing fields where mass graves have been uncovered of men, women and children who were bludgeoned to death because bullets were too expensive to waste on them. Truly shocking were the clothes strewn across the ground in and around the now empty graves - clothes belonging to the victims - because 30 years is not long enough for the cloth to degrade completely. It was a harrowing day finished with a visit to a museum where the meticulous records of the Khmer Rouge , now evidence in their trials, are displayed (Mugshots of the people detained and murdered, photos of the torture inflicted on them in the very rooms we were standing in) but necessary to get a full picture of the country we are visiting.

No photos this time as I haven't yet taken to photographing our food, but I might! Also I didn't take any photos at the Killing fields for obvious reasons.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Countryside glimpses and white knuckle rides

It is possible to transport anything, yes anything, on a moped or using a small trailer pulled by a moped: several dozen chickens hung over the handlebars by their legs; a very large pig, hog-tied, and balanced upside down on a plank on the seat; building supplies (bricks, sand, wood etc); c.100 ceramic pots; a truck's axle and so the list goes on. The record for people transportation seen so far is 5 adults on a moped and around 20 more stood in a small trailer being towed by said moped!
From Cambodia

We finished up our time in Siem Reap with a walking tour of the countryside with 2 lovely girls as our guides. Transported first by Tuk-Tuk 20 or so kilometres out of the city we were deposited on one of the many endless stretches of very, very straight dusty red roads. The Cambodians must have had lessons from the Romans when it came to road building (did the Romans get this far???). Anyway, the roads were incredibly straight and we had entered a time warp, albeit for the mopeds. A land where time has stood still as families farm the land with rice and herbs, keeping cows and water buffalo. Transport is by buffalo drawn cart and everything is done at a very leisurely pace.
From Cambodia

From Cambodia

We walked around rice fields and through several small villages and sat for a while with some women weaving mats and bowls from dried palm leaves. There wasn't much conversation to be had, just plenty of smiles. The scenery was like a picture book. Flat as the eye can see, regimented into small squares that are mostly dry and brown because of the season; the odd palm tree breaking your line of sight. It is tranquil and so beautiful, such a relief from the hustle and bustle of the towns and cities. Breakfast of banana bread, fruit, and incredibly sweet coffee, was taken beneath the house of a friendly family and we discovered that the houses are not built on stilts due to immense flooding in the wet season, but because of their belief that bad spirits travel along the ground and so by raising their houses up the bad spirits will pass them by. I like that philosophy :-)
From Cambodia

We were picked up by the Tuk-Tuk to be driven a few kilometres further to another village but made an impromptu stop, due to a flat tyre, at a little house-cum-store much to the amusement of the family living there whilst we waited for our driver to get the tyre fixed. The smaller children didn't know what to make of us and the teenage girl thought it was funny, affecting a little strut as she went about her chores. She let me go with her to the pig sty and I discovered that pigs really do eat slop. Brown slop. Geez they were loud, screaming for the food whilst she mixed it with water. All too soon our brief interlude at the country store was over, our driver returned with a new tyre and we went on our way.

Our guides were great and gave us a real insight into Cambodian life - the poverty, the customs etc. The essential key to all young Cambodians life is learning English: the magical language; the key to the door; the road to riches. At least that is the belief and I suppose in comparison to a life of subsistence farming working in tourism whether as a guide, in a restaurant, or in a hotel, it is a road to a richer life. The ones that do manage to learn English are then obligated (I'm not sure that is the right term as it seems to be done quite willingly) to support the rest of the family - c.10 siblings and parents, put the younger ones through school, pay for their English lessons etc. It explains why we see at every turn people in their late teens and twenties with their noses buried in exercise books and text books. Every spare moment is an opportunity to learn a little bit more English and it's humbling. Our walk was a refreshing glimpse into the real Cambodia, not the chocolate coated foreigner version.

It was time to leave Siem Reap and we travelled south to Battambang, supposedly the country's second city, but a bit of a backwater really. We engaged another friendly Tuk-Tuk driver to take us into the countryside where we visited a few temples, one of which was situated next to a cave where thousand's of people were murdered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. It was harrowing to come face to face with the mass genocide that has taken place in this country so recently, not least because we were told that some of the bones found in the cave have been put on display for foreigners to look at.

We spent the whole day, whilst being ferried in our Tuk-Tuk over truly awful roads, smiling and waving to all of the children along the way. All of them waved and some shouted 'Hello', some shouted 'Bye Bye' and my smile muscles were put under considerable strain! Our last stop was the bamboo train. A self assembly train that is essentially a base of woven bamboo sat on 2 axles, with a small engine and a make shift breaking system which consisted of a piece of wood on elastic bands that when stood on, presses against the rails and slows the train down. We sat on cushions and our very young driver (around 10 years old) started the engine and off we went on on what turned out to be a bit of a white knuckle ride. The train went quite fast on tracks that are bent and warped with gaps between the rails of up to 3 inches. These gaps make for a bumpy ride and the bent rails approaching very quickly made it all quite nerve wracking - in a fun sort of way!
From Cambodia

A very expensive day

We stayed in Siem Reap and our friendly Tuk-Tuk driver returned the following day to take us to see the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake. We had a extremely bumpy ride on unmade roads to the river that feeds the lake (our Tuk-Tuk was essentially a small motorbike with a trailer attached and made for a stomach churning ride as our driver made no attempt to slow down over the pot holes!) and paid $20 each to a Government official to go on a boat to the village - a bit extortionate we thought. The floating villages are exactly that - houses, schools, shops, even gardens and basketball courts, all on boats or floating platforms. There's a Vietnamese village and a Cambodian village separated by a few hundred metres of water and apparently the two peoples do not get along.

From Cambodia

We were told that we could visit a school for orphans and we could buy some books and pencils for the children if we wished. "Of course" we said, happy to be able to give a little bit to the community we were visiting. We were duly delivered to a floating store and presented with cellophane wrapped packets of exercise books (about 20 per pack) and bundles of 10 pencils and told that we had best buy two lots of each as there are about 40 orphans. What an absolute rip off! We were fleeced of US$40, taken back onto the boat and driven to the school where the children were obviously used to having random tourists rock up to look at them like caged animals, and they didn't take a blind bit of notice of us! It was all a bit awkward and we felt a bit used to be honest. The books and pencils were so massively over priced that someone is making a fat profit off of them and it isn't the school, and I'm sure it isn't the girl in the store either. We would have been much happier giving the money straight to the school or an orphans charity, but there you go - corruption in action.

From Cambodia
The school canteen

From Cambodia
Travelling to school

To top it all off the boat driver asked us if we would give him and his friend, who had accompanied him for the ride, a tip. We agreed, thinking a couple of dollars will be sufficient, when he said "you give $20 to me and $20 to him". He was either being extremely cheeky or people have been massively over tipping these guys. We politely declined and gave them $5 each, which was still more than we wanted really. What can you do though, we are rich in comparison and a soft target.
From Cambodia

Monday, 23 March 2009

Angkor What?

Entering Cambodia was the first border crossing we have had to do by land so far on the trip and was a nerve wracking experience. We beat the visa scam that was operating on the bus by not agreeing to hand over our passports to the person on the bus, who may or may not have actually been working for the bus company (whose company name we didn't know), despite her attempts to worry us with tales of corruption at the border and there being no guarantee how much we would have to pay the police as a bribe if we didn't take advantage of her "service". We stuck to our guns and passed through the Thai immigration to 'No Man's Land' which was a bizarre kilometre or so of land full of casinos. Obviously there are no gaming laws in No Man's Land - maybe Buddha doesn't reign over that bit of dusty wasteland?!

The bus company representative at the border, upset that we didn't opt to use the visa "service", was not interested in helping us find where we should get our visa, and would not even point us in the right direction. His only comment on the subject was "Go find your visa" - sore loser! We found the right place eventually and duly filled out the seemingly pointless forms, handed over our passports and the necessary payment, and watched the Policeman walk away. It is a really awful feeling to be in stranded between countries with no passport to go anywhere, surrounded by Policemen who don't speak English and who don't care about anything except the exchange of money. But there was no need to worry as the guy came back with our passports and visas, and it only cost us $28 instead of the official charge of $20, which was still cheaper than the visa "service" we were offered, Ha! A little confidence paid off :-).

The first impression of Cambodia is that is that the landscape is very different to Thailand. It is full of ploughed crop fields rather than rice fields and it is very, very, very flat in all directions. The country is much poorer than Thailand and consequently there are more beggars and sellers trying to get you to part with your money. Trying to negotiate a Tuk-Tuk ride when faced with 3 or 4 guys all telling you that they haven't had a customer for 6 hours is heart wrenching. We have replaced the constant "You want massage?", in Thailand, with " You want Tuk Tuk?" and it annoys me to see foreigners walking past these people as though they do not exist. They are only to trying to make an honest living, and in a part of the world where there seems to be more dishonesty than honesty in the tourist trade they deserve a break, or even just a polite 'No thank you'.

We engaged a friendly Tuk-Tuk driver as our guide to the temples and as we set off at 9am the temperature was already soaring. I will gloss rather quickly over temple descriptions as a picture says a thousands words. We started at 'Bayon" - the temple of the faces, built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, with 52 replicas of his face looking out in all directions so that he could keep an eye on everything that was happening in the Kingdom.

From Cambodia

The next temple of interest was the one featured in that Hollywood "masterpiece" 'Tomb Raider'. This has to be the most interesting and picturesque as the jungle has taken over. Huge trees, 20 or so metres high grow from the top of buildings; giant roots wrap walls, now keeping them upright through time.

From Cambodia

From Cambodia

We saw other smaller temples, but the temperature was now around 35 degrees and my interest was beginning to wane. The finale of the day was Angkor Way itself. A truly immense structure - it took 10 minutes to walk across the moat to reach the entrance way. It is unfortunate that they are currently undertaking restoration work and so the towers that are synonymous with photos of Angkor Wat are covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin which spoilt the photo opportunities somewhat. We walked into the temple and around its covered portico's, but I am afraid that I was a little underwhelmed by it. Sacrilege I know as it really should have made it into the revised Seven Wonders of the World, and sure it is a massive structure, but up close there's not much to differentiate it from the other temples. Macchu Pichu was more awe inspiring I'm afraid. However, we spent a few hours wandering around and exploring so I feel we did it justice and then we just had to retreat to the guest house to find some relief from the heat. I will try to do better at appreciating wonders of the world in future :-).

From Cambodia

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A picture of Thailand

As the time nears to bade farewell to the Land of Silk I am looking forward to a new country, language, food, and people but I will miss Thailand alot. Although I am sure that things will not change too much once we cross the border into Cambodia and we will still walk around to a chorus of "Where you go?", "What you looking for?", "You want shopping?", "You want tour?". Unfortunately the people are unable to distinguish between strapped for cash backpackers and the well dressed, monied, folk staying at the 5 star resorts. I suppose we are all just walking Dollars really, and when even the backpackers can spend the equivalent of a day's wage on one meal, we are all fair game.

I will miss the smell of barbecuing meat skewers that waft at intervals on every street, and I will miss watching the strange mingling of home life and business on the streets, where people who run the night stalls seem to use their little patch of pavement as an extension of their living room. Or perhaps it is their living room? Tucked behind the stall, to the side, or even in front if space is tight is a small TV hooked up to the power lines overhead, and the family watch their evening programs as the street traffic passes on by.

This is a country where you can get almost anything you want, or need, on the street. A complete meal, a new set of clothes, maybe a fake watch or pair of sunglasses to complete your ensemble; souvenirs for all your friends; ornaments or bedding for your home or a relaxing massage whilst you watch the world go by.

All of this trade on the pavements does make walking anywhere a mission of weaving in and out of stalls, TVs, children, massage chairs and more often than not it's simply impossible to walk on the pavement at all, and so you join the scooters, Tuk-Tuk's and cars on the road. Thai people do not walk anywhere, which is why presumably the pavements are viewed as prime space for a business. Every journey, no matter how short, is done on a scooter usually with a small child balanced on the seat in front, or stood on the footbed holding onto the handle bars.

The countryside is a patchwork of bright green rice fields which sit in contrast with the red earth and scorched grass surrounding them. Little oasis of green with flocks of storks and other assorted birds steadfastly ignoring the scarecrow plastic bags fastened to bamboo sticks. Scattered in amongst the expanse of rice fields are fields of 2 metre high sugarcane making the scenery look scruffy and unattended in comparison to the neat, ordered squares of paddy field.

Driving is done at break neck speed with all bus drivers attempting to reach their destination in record breaking time. Bicycles are used as transport, not for human passengers but for crops and other goods presumably bound for market. These bikes are piled ridiculously high, and carefully wheeled along the edges of the highway in another old versus new juxtaposition.

When travelling some of our fellow vehicles on the road are huge lorries stacked high with cut sugarcane, winding their way in procession like a long, fume producing snake, to the sugar refineries. Perhaps to one day end up in our shops at home. These truck drivers drive like everyone else on the roads - sheer bloody lunacy! The Thai drive like they are riding bikes (pedal or motor) weaving in and out of each other with no regard for lanes. You can easily fit 4-5 cars/Tuk-Tuk's/scooters side by side on a 2 lane road so why not? There are inches, and sometimes not even that, to spare between these weaving manoeuvres, but everyone is very well tempered. There's no beeping of horns because you have just been cut up by a scooter that balances underneath 3 adults and a baby. The Thai just accept it and carry on.

We've been on the road for 5 weeks now and have lapsed back into things easily. There's plenty of time for introspection, digesting the latest strange sights and smells, and reading (Mike's averaging a book a week currently!). But hey, with the most pressing daily concern being what shall we have to eat for lunch/dinner, life's pretty easy! Onwards to Cambodia...

Here's a few more photos we took in Thailand:

Mike's burger chain

Floating market

Cooking noodles at the market

ATV off roading in the jungle

Walking in the countryside

'Costa Del Tourist' aka Khao San Road, Bangkok. Home to cheap eats, cheap hostels and all the scams you could ever wish for!

At the Royal Palace

Elephant artistry

Kayaking in the mangrove swamps

Nightlife Koh Phi Phi style - fire dancing