Tuesday, 9 March 2010

What Are We Up To And Where Have We Been Since Vietnam?

Hiya. Tania’s catching up with the rest of the details of our tour of South East Asia - our month in Cambodia; our return to Thailand, where we finally found the idyllic Thai island life we’d been looking for; and finishing off with a month in Vietnam.

Since then, we’ve had a month in Australia, 12 days in New Zealand and a month in California. These places have been dramatically more expensive than South East Asia and we have relied heavily on the hospitality and generosity of our friends. I may have even put on a little weight!

We’d like to publicly thank all the people who’ve put us up on this part of the trip:

• Naz, Michelle and little Zach
• Jon Lawrence and his family
• Christina, Wiki, Lucas and Levi
• Eytan and Debbie
• Duncan, Andrea and Luke
• Janek and Ania

A special extra massive thanks to Jan and Ania, at whose place you would think we have well overstayed our welcome, but apparently haven’t. They have been SO nice to us and the food has been absolutely unbelievable – Ania rocks the kitchen like a delicious and devastating hurricane.

So thanks a huge bunch, guys. We love you and are ever so grateful. Whenever you need a place to stay, we hope you will give us a shout.

In New Zealand, we travelled around under our own steam, in a hybrid camper van type thing called a Spaceship, which was fun, if a little cramped sometimes (I may have had the odd tantrum). Check them out if you ever go – the new model is apparently much more fuel-efficient and they have inbuilt GPS on which you can see other Spaceship travellers. Out of season you can get the price right down, some reckoned to $25 a day!
PS If you decide to use them in NZ, Oz or even the UK, quote this code for one day's free hire: 4321AS

Here’s a map, showing our route since we arrived in Sydney:


More books we have read since the last list

The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Transition by Iain Banks
Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Rings And The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter Of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
The Gold Finder Of Australia by John Sherer
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Pompeii by Robert Harris

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


Vietnam might be the most gentle introduction to SE Asia. The food is good, generally not as spicy as its counterparts, and the French influence means if you’re on the street you don't have to launch straight into intestines, or scorpions on a stick – how about a nice pate-filled fresh baguette instead? The standard of hospitality is high, with accommodation a bit pricier than Thailand, but worth it (the going rate is around 10 dollars a night, although on Cat Ba island in Halong Bay we paid as little as 5). Flush toilets, hot water and even baths are common (wow, how do I do this again?)

The middle of the country is pretty flat from what we saw, with scenery not quite as interesting as Laos or Thailand, but in contrast Halong Bay and Sapa up north are absolutely incredible visually. Hoi An, which is around the middle and only a handful of kilometres from a long, beachy coast, is an indescribably, impossibly beautiful town by a river and we totally fell in love with the place. Terrific food (rice flour pancakes, barbecued pork, white lotus dumplings), unbelievably cheap "bia hoi" (fresh beer) at 25 cents a glass (also good, and even cheaper, in Hanoi old quarter), lovely people, great architecture and a very pleasant setting. Ambling around the old town at night is just divine, so pretty with red lanterns in the shops and streetlights reflecting off the water and the haunting sound of dan bau (the Viet whammy bar thingy, also known as a monochord zither). And if you are into art and clothes you are set for life.

Hanoi’s great too, but we met many people who were put off by the traffic. The cosmopolitan and convivial "bia corner" was more than enough of a draw for me and the streets of the old quarter are great to wander through, even if packed.

And the people. We are not sure whether we have just been lucky in Vietnam, or things have simply come together for us after 5 months in SE Asia; or the people actually are more friendly (or perhaps "engaging" is a better word) there than the other places we’ve been. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they have been LOVELY all over SE Asia. But you do notice that locals are a bit more reserved in Laos and (particularly rural) Thailand – perhaps due to a lesser grasp of English and, well, "face-saving" – and (I thought) occasionally curt in Thai towns and cities. We found Cambodia more interactive generally, with people in towns and cities much more likely to engage with you, albeit often in order to sell you something. But even more so in Vietnam, where we were positively blessed with gifts, home invites and just lovely interactions, all over the place. And it wasn't all about university students practising English. On Cat Ba we were invited onto a boat full of construction workers who were delighted to offer us tea and share a few laughs, even if we could not speak each other’s language.

It was interesting because a couple of travellers we had previously met had had "bad" experiences with locals in Vietnam, a Finnish guy who was refused something because he was thought to be American for example. We had quite the opposite kind of experience.

On Cam Kim island, Hoi An, having just had tea at a local’s newly built house, we unknowingly walked into a funeral because of the beautiful traditional music being played. An English teacher, a relative of the deceased (who had passed at 6 that morning) explained the situation and we felt terrible, but the attendants welcomed us and insisted we drink tea and rice wine with them. Now we know that the white scarves round the head mark the close relatives of the dead at a funeral. We paid our respects by saying a prayer with incense and giving a little money to the family and went on our way, still not completely comfortable with the imposition, but certainly having been made to feel very welcome.

In Halong, we stayed on Cat Ba island, which seems under-rated. The national park is stunning, and when you finish the 15km walk you take a boat through some amazing fjords, which are reminiscent of lochs in Scotland. This was better than the actual trip through Halong Bay, as there were hardly any other tour boats around, unlike the Bay itself where you can’t move for them. Cat Ba is quite a big island, so it is well worth taking a bike for a couple of days and exploring the cliff roads, beaches, valleys and caves. The seafront area of Cat Ba town can be a bit off-putting, with overblown skyscraper hotels and a huge "Welcome to Cat Ba" sign making a bow over the pier, but there are real local communities here, only a short walk away. And Cat Ba is the home of the entire population (60-70) of golden haired langur monkeys, which look pretty cute in pictures (we didn’t see any).

We finished up in Sapa, the mountainous region up north. How beautiful, with the clouds lying in the bottom of the valley and stepped terrace rice fields rising up the steep mountain sides. Pretty town, great food markets. Perhaps a little over-zealous hill-tribe street sellers, quite prepared to follow you all around town, all day long, but we'll let that pass. Bl**dy cold place when the sun's not out though! Fortunately our room had a fireplace, as well as the incredible view.

In Sapa, we took the opportunity to climb the highest mountain in Indochina, Fan Si Pan (3,143m). Proved to be nearly as much of a challenge as Mt Kenya, with very little sleep in a barn equipped with the obligatory banging door and absolutely howling winds outside. Dinner with the guides was great, with lots of the local tipple, corn wine, consumed for heating purposes (yes, I know that's a fallacy but it feels good at the time). Got up at 4am to do the summit, having literally just fallen asleep. Icy cold, thick cloud and no battery left in our torch (when you're that tired, you make bad decisions, like not bringing enough batteries). Some fairly serious scrambling over steep rocks, particularly in the dark, but our guide's phone torch was a help and far more reliable in the circumstances than our expensive army torch. But we did it. And even though we couldn't see an awful lot at the top because of the cloud, the scenery is beautiful. The starting point of the walk is managed parkland, with some lovely flowers. Then you quickly move into temperate forest with some sub-tropical elements (hark at me - ok, I looked that up). Then it opens up with less tree cover but still some nice flowerage, then you get a zone dominated by just one leafy green plant and then above that you just get masses of quite thin stemmed bamboo, right up to the top. Phew.

So, a tough rewarding finish to Vietnam. Actually, not quite - fortunately we were treated to a lovely dinner back in Hanoi by our friends Alex and Nigel, who were on their own tour of the country. Thanks guys, great to see you, needed that!

59 Thai Massage in Trat

Great place for quality Thai massage in Trat, which is quite a nice town/province in eastern Thailand near the border with southern Cambodia. Trat has a particularly good night food market. 59 massage was my second fvourite massage place in south east Asia.

"59 Thai massage"
59 Lakmuang Road
A. Muang

It's on one of the sideroads off the main road, near lots of guesthouses, parallel to the street with Pop guesthouse on.

Thai bird houses, music and the best game ever

Thai bird houses

This is, I believe, one of the genuinely interesting things we learned on the trip – something I am likely to tell you if you make the costly mistake of inviting me to dinner (I am also likely to totally deplete any food reserves you may have). We were told it by our friends and fellow travellers, Andreas and Heike, whom we met in Laos. Andreas and Heike are also responsible for teaching us the excellent dice game of “Zilch”, which you are also likely to be exposed to, should you decide to invite us to dinner.

The Chinese are very keen on “bird’s nest soup”, which is made using actual swallow’s nests. They believe it is healthy and tasty and there is a huge market for it, meaning that someone who can supply regular and plentiful quantities of swallow’s nests will be remunerated handsomely. In Thailand, some developers dedicate whole buildings to harbouring families of swallows. Apart from the substitution of air vents for windows and the large numbers of birds hanging around, these look like normal buildings, perhaps blocks of flats. Apparently ultra-sound is used to attract the swallows and advanced monitoring systems ensure that families are actually permitted to use their home after the first few iterations. It’s important to get conditions inside the buildings just right for the birds. If successful in attracting large numbers of swallows, such investments can be very lucrative.

It was in Trat that we saw our first live ones. There are a couple on the main street and more around the night food market. Tons of birds, and you can see the gap on the roof where they get in and out. What an interesting business concept!

Thai music

I have a theory. All Thai popular music is based on the chords of “Scarborough Fair”, in rearranged progressions. Plus, Thai singers and musicians love to chuck in a sixth note – the “-ry” of “Rosema-ry” – at every available opportunity.

You heard it here first.

Best game ever

OK, we don’t claim to have invented this first. There are probably a million variations floating around out there – club nights dedicated to the concept, even. It is simply an extrapolation of the original concept of “shuffle”.

Best played on a beach, perhaps? A set of speakers is essential; the little travelling ones are fine, perhaps even best for the game. Roll a die or similar to see who goes first.

Everyone sets their mp3 player to (completely random) shuffle (no cheating now), each one taking centre stage in rotation. Each person’s go lasts until a quorum vetoes the current track playing. Is the person who lasts longest the “coolest”?

Siem Reap and Angkor

The Angkor complex of temples is the must-see manmade site in Cambodia, Asia and probably the whole world. The most recognisable images of Angkor might be of the enormous trees that have grown over some of the temples and now actually support them, or from King Louie’s city in Disney’s The Jungle Book, for which Angkor Wat provides the setting, apparently. It’s practically against the law to visit Cambodia without going to Angkor.

Siem Reap is the closest city to Angkor. It’s touristy and, let me say frankly, so what? I don’t care if a place is touristy (partly because there’s nothing more ironic than a bunch of tourists complaining that somewhere is touristy) as long as it’s nice. As far as I’m concerned, Siem Reap’s tourism is, overall, quite lovely. There are some extremely tempting touristy restaurants in the network of lanes behind the market, and some lovely tourist items in the tourist section of the market and the atmosphere in the bars made me feel like a French Colonialist (a nice one).

One thing I would say: don’t sit on the street front of a bar or restaurant because tourists don’t blend in and you’re cannon fodder for those lovely Cambodian kids. They are gorgeous, cheeky and smarter than you. They will try anything. They sell everything from photocopies of Lonely Planet Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, Brother Number One and any other Cambodia-centric literature to postcards and jewellery for those not into reading. Some follow you down the road with their best pathetic face on, whining “One dollar, one dollar” (they can switch their tone in a second when they see a friend). Others are more enterprising and will promise to leave you alone if you beat them at Noughts And Crosses (I’m a particular sucker for this, the best I managed was a draw and we hadn’t established the rules for that). The general consensus seems to be that buying stuff from these kids is wrong: they should be in school, the money most likely goes to their suppliers rather than them and by buying their stuff we are maintaining a bad status quo. Then there are the landmine victims with awful tales to tell. My personal strategy is to buy something I want from someone I like, and then sit inside the restaurant.

You need at least three days for Angkor, preferably with days in between (such passes are available, we found out too late) because it’s all too easy to get templed out. We didn’t do it, but I’d recommend hiring a bike to get to the temples closest to the main entrance, including Angkor Wat itself; it’s a lovely, easy ride that somehow reminds me of Virginia Water. If you were to compare the entire Angkor complex to a Christmas dinner, Angkor Wat is the turkey, the grand centrepiece that pulls everything together and provides the central meaning to the entire thing. All the other temples (Bayon, Tha Phrom, Banteay Srei and so on) are like the accompanying dishes, each one someone’s favourite, and all being necessary to complete the meal. Tha Phrom, with its Alien-like organic mess of trees growing over, around and through the temple is, arguably, the most iconic; the haunting stone faces at Bayon seem alive and watchful with a serene benevolence; Banteay Srei offers the most intricate and time-weathered carvings and a peaceful but pregnant atmosphere… these are my personal favourites. Sunrise and sunset were not the tranquil images I expected; I joined a thronging crowd all jostling to take exactly the same picture, which was a picture in itself.

On the third day of our tour, it absolutely chucked it down all day. My camera started steaming up, Alex did his best to manoeuvre an umbrella over it while I tried to take pictures but it was no use, the sides of our tuk-tuk were zipped up so we couldn’t see anything, our waterproofs proved yet again that they were anything but waterproof and our poor driver was out front bearing the brunt. So, we packed it in early. It rained for the rest of the day. It rained all night. I woke up at about 4 in the morning to find Alex and the night porter in our room clearing up a flood on the floor from a leak in the window (I would have helped if I hadn’t fallen straight back to sleep), and it was still raining. When we woke up in the morning, the rain had stopped. We walked down the drive of our guesthouse to the road and were met by water. Lots of water. It ran all the way to the roundabout by the bridge and down all the roads near it. The water was actually flowing round the corners like a river. The actual river had burst its banks in spectacular fashion. We watched in awe at cars, trucks and coaches attempting to go round the roundabout, the wheels entirely submerged. Water lapped around the tables and chairs of the restaurants. And then it started raining again.

This was the calmer end of a cyclone that also hit the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand leaving death, destruction and homelessness in its wake – 66,000 families forced from their homes in Cambodia alone. The rice hadn’t had enough water during the year and now it was getting far too much so poor harvests would ensure that the impact was felt for many months to come. It was bad news all round. But people also found opportunities. A woman had taken a remote control boat out and it was whizzing up and down the riverside road that was now part of the river, kids were leaping into it from the bridge with tyres and lifejackets and floating off to who knows where and parents pushed their toddlers down the road in inflatable paddling pools. Everyone knew it was bad news, but that wasn’t going to stop them having a little fun. And at least the water levels in the crocodile farm next door to us didn’t get high enough for the crocs to escape.

Arrival in Cambodia

Travelling by bus over the border to Cambodia and staring through the window, I was mesmerised by its startling flatness. The sun reflected on water-submerged rice fields between tall, elegant palms, the road cut a dead straight line ahead and as far as I could see there was not a single mountain, hill or even a bump anywhere. It put me in a kind of trance. I was jolted out of my reverie when we changed buses and found myself surrounded by young kids all trying to sell us pineapple. They all had a very firm grasp of English and an even firmer grasp of US dollars.
“You want pineapple?”
“No, thanks.”
“Where you from?”
“The UK.”
“UK is four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. Population: 60 million people. Capital city: London. Prime Minister: Gordon Brown. Lovely jubbly!”
“You want pineapple?”
“No, thanks.”
“Okay, but if you want pineapple you buy from me. I’m Spider Girl. You want hold spider?” She held out an enormous, black, tarantula kind of spider.
“Hell, no!”
“He no bite! He friendly spider.” He was furry and weirdly cute. I held out my hand and she let it crawl on and up my arm. We showed him to Alex.
“What the...!” He moved pretty quickly for a big guy.
“You married?” Spider Girl asked when she’d stopped laughing.
“Er... same same.”
“Ah, same same!” she laughed again. “Maybe tomorrow he marry you!”
“Probably not.”
“Ha ha!” It was time to get back on the bus and I decided I did want some pineapple after all. It seemed the polite way to end the conversation. She wanted a dollar. I gave her half a dollar for half the pineapple. I knew, as she knew, that I was going to haemorrhage cash like this. But knowing is one thing. She waved at us in the bus until we couldn’t see her anymore. I liked her.

When we arrived at Stung Treng, we made a show of exploring guesthouses further than the one our bus dropped us off at, but stayed there anyway. We’d been there an hour, minding our own business with a beer outside, when a Stung Treng local collared us for a meet and greet session at the school he taught at. We’d been travelling for hours, hadn’t had a shower and the beer was going down rather well, but experience has taught us that school sessions with kids are always worth the effort so half an hour later, both Alex and I were riding on the back of his scooter to the local college where the kids, aged between 8 and thirteen, were having a 6-7pm class (poor things).

Having no teaching experience, it’s a little terrifying standing in front of a class of kids and there’s a moment of silence at the beginning when my mind goes completely blank. We’ve found the best way to get everyone involved is to ask, “Who wants to sing a song?” Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes (Knees And Toes) is a good way to break the ice because everyone seems to know it. Then we taught them One Two Three Four Five Once I Caught A Fish Alive. And all of a sudden, an hour was gone, which was good because we'd run out of songs. On their way out of the classroom, the kids told us that Alex was handsome and, after a prodding from the teacher, that I was beautiful. Aw. So, after one day in Cambodia, we’d got to know the locals better than after a month in Laos. The fact that everyone, including the kids, spoke great English obviously helped.