Around The World

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Warning-Aviso

*After 13 months travelling arround the world: we´re now over. We´re sorry for not keeping the blog updated but we will finish with it soon... (as soon as we get back to the regular life...). By the way, we have been publishing the photos in My Travel Pictures 1 & 2.

*Despues de haber estado viajando durante 13 meses al rededor del mundo: se acabo el chollo (por ahora). Sentimos no haber podido mantener el blog al dia, pero tan pronto como nos incorporemos a la vida monotona de siempre lo terminaremos, que queda lo mejor... Y por el contrario, las fotos sí que las hemos mantenido al dia en My Travel Pictures 1 y 2.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Kangding, Sichuan, China 20/09/05

We left armed with big round Tibetan breads & boiled eggs. This was our last mountain hop. It was very cold over the highest passes but we were breathing easier this time.

The mountains stretched in all directions & you get a real idea how vast it is. We passed a convoy of army trucks & through a valley where an earthquake had struck. We descended deep into a valley to the town of Kangding & were back in the Chinese world.

Kangding itself is not such an impressive place, with lots of new high-rise apartment blocks & hotels. The views are great though. A 5000m mountain, we think it is Gonga Shan, rises above the town.

We took a brand new bus the next morning along the brand new road to Chengdu and left the mountains behind.

Litang, Sichuan, China 18-19/09/05

The morning after our grand Tibetan dream & an overdose of pinchos, we took our last journey with Ben, the mountain man. Ben; fountain of encouragement & positive vibes. See you at the top of Kilimanjaro!

Thankfully this bus ride was only five hours. We had reached the highest point in our journey & we all felt the effects of the altitude. Maybe not altitude sickness, but like being drunk & breathless. At this point Jacob, panting like an old man, swore he would give up those super-cheap Chinese cigarettes! After another spectacular trip through desolate mountain scenery & yak photos, we arrived in Litang.

At 4800m it was a real taste of Tibet. The city is mostly traditional houses, built on a plain with a monastery overlooking it. 90% of the people are Tibetan. They look totally different to the Chinese & not what we expected. With long black hair tied up in a top knot & silver jewellery they reminded us of Native Americans. They are really tall, strong & very dark. Both men & women wear cowboy hats & thick cloaks. The men have large knives with ornate handles & ride motorbikes with brightly coloured paintjobs & leather tassles hanging from the handlebars. There are pelnty of poolhalls around town & the whole place has a real "wild west" feel. We stayed an extra day to rest & get some Tibetan culture.

Here we said "bye" to Ben, see you in Marseille! We ate Tibetan potato pancakes & fried eggpalnt. Spun some prayer wheels at a temple & walked around the monastery. The locals were very friendly & didn’t even laugh when we took photos of everyday things. It is a totallly different world up there in the mountains & we got an appetite for Tibet.

Xiangcheng, Sichuan, China 17/09/05

We were really in the mountain mood & there would be plenty more to come. We were ahead of our schedule for reaching Beijing & Shanghai but decided to keep on. Today we were heading to Xiangcheng, about 250km north.

The sky was clear and full of stars when we woke. It was great to get up & smell such fresh mountain air. The bus was packed full, as is usual in these parts, but today we & the other eight western travellers on board got a big surprise!
The journey took about nine hours over incredible country. Really high passes & bone-dry, rocky gorges. We were very impressed by the Chinese engineering: bridges & roads that skirted incredibly steep hillsides. Rockslides that seemend to appear & re-appear daily all along the road.

Around lucnhtime the bus was stopped by three plain-clothed police. It was in the middle of nowhere in a hot, dry valley but we guess it was the border between Yunnan & Sichuan. Very strange situation: the police blocked the road with their car. As soon as the bus stopped the two drivers & their "assistant" started talking animatedly & walking up & down with the police in what looked like a negotiation. Of course none of us tourists knew what was going on. Maybe a drugs bust? After ten minutes the police told a western backpacker to get out. Now we knew something was up. It was at this point that a young Chinese guy (the only one who spoke English), stepped in to translate. Without him the whole thing would have been a mess. It turned out that the six people without seats (all western backpackers sitting in the aisle), had to get out of the bus & find their own way through the mountains. After about half an hour of arguments, we all looked on in shock as the six were off-loaded with alll ther luggage. It seemed stupid. But then the bus stopped a kilometre on behind the next hill & picked up the six when they arrived...

In Xiangcheng we stayed in a huge Tibetan house which seemed to have been converted into a guest house. We were the only three guests & so we stayed in the main room. It was like a Tibetan-themed nuptial suite in a five-star hotel. The beds were wooden, carved & painted with intricate designs in the local style. A huge skylight was above the centre of the room & the ceiling was vaulted with more bright paintwork & carved details. Tibetan ornaments were all over & woven hangings covered the walls. We only stayed one night but we felt like Tibetan aristocrats (see pictures).

Shangrila, Yunnnan, China 16/09/05

As we were planning our route north, we had the choice of taking the train to Chengdu via the plains, or by bus taking the spectacular mountain route through eastern Tibet which would be longer, more uncomfortable & tiring. Of course we chose the mountains.

The first stop was Shangrila, formerly know as Zhongian, and often called the start of the Tibetan world. As soon as we reached the plateau at 3000m we could see Tibetan dress and architecture. The people have a different look and the bus driver started to play Tibetan music. Shangrila, like many other cities in China, has a lot of new development. Most of the city is what we like to call "modern Chinese", with bland and functional buildings. But the nucleus is a perfectly restored old town, one of the most lovely we have seen. The buildings are two-story wth pitched rooves and are made fo dark hardwood with huge beams and doorframes. They have a style and character unlike what we have seen in other parts of Asia. The windows are a lattice-work of intricate carved wooden panels with great designs. Like in the Chinese style, there are many decorated gateways around the town.

The best thing for us though was when we arrived to the town square to find several hundred locals dancing in unison under the full moon. It was a moving sight and Barbara cried to see it (Ben nearly did too, Jacob was too breathless from the altitude for any signs of emotion!) With popular Tibetan songs played over a sound system, a huge gathering of people danced in a circular motion around the square. From young children jumping and skipping to old couples sedately doing the moves. Workers, businessmen, drunks & women with different costumes all knew the choreography. We even saw our bus driver from the following day, dancing passionately with his huge silver-handled knife by his side (this is the Tibetan mens fashion accessory we would come to know well). This was one of the most lovely things we saw during our trip.

We ate spicy pinchos (skewers) of meats, potatoes, vegetables & mushrooms while we got to know the tunes. Barbara wanted to dance but Jacob was suffering from altitude sickness & sore legs. So now we have an excellent reason to go back.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China 14-16/09/05

Day 1 (to Walnut Grove)

Ahead the gorge was imposing. Huge forested slopes on the right above us, where we could hear birds & animals. On the left, rock walls climbed straight up from the river to naked peaks reaching to the sky. It is an incredible landscape like none we have seen before (check pictures!) It took us three hours walking to reach the gorge. We walked three more along a small road about 80m above the imposing river. There were vertical drops to the river & flat rock-faces the size of football fields above us. So many different types of rock we could have started a geology course! When we arrived at Seans' guesthouse we were completely destroyed, but luckily Sean had everything we needed to revive ourselves. After talking to other trekkers we realised we were the only ones walking with full backpacks. Most people leave their bags at one end and take a taxi back along the low road. Their opinions of us ranged from being impressed to thinking we were crazy. We felt the same way, depending on the moment!

Day 2 (to the Tea Horse Guesthouse)

After spending the evening and half the following morning in contemplation of the vertical rock wall across the river from Sean's guesthouse (it really is spectacular, at almost 1600m), we gathered our strength for the hike. Here we had two choices; to continue along the road which follows the river (Barbara tried hard to lobby for this option), or take the high path, which is much more difficult & maybe a bit dangerous. We took a vote & the result was 2-1: Barbara & her period pain & her backpack & her bad humour would be taking the high path. After climbing for an hour we reached the level path & followed it for the rst of the day. With the fast flowing river far below & peaks on both sides the scenery was wonderfull. We passed waterfalls & rockfalls, through forest & scrub. In some places the path became very narrow with sheer drops to the river & we skirted the hillside like mountain goats, yeah! Barbara regained her mountain spirit with the unforgetable views. In the late afternoon we arrived at the Tea Horse Guesthouse, surrounded by marijuana plants (trees, actually!)

Day 3 (back to civilisation)

We left at dawn & faced the highest, steepest climb of the gorge. For two hours we slowly made our way up to the ridge, the highest point at 2700m. We thought it would get easier to carry the packs but no, we all panted & sweated & almost crawled to the top. Luckily, the guy who charges five yuan to take photos at the lookout wasn't there yet so we got some freebies! From there it was all down hill, through fields & idylic countryside to the village of Qiaotou.

At two o'clock we jumped on a bus for the four hour ride up into the montains, the borders of Tibet: Shangrila, land of altitude sickness & yak butter.

Daju, Yunnan, China 13/09/05

We took a wild ride in a minibus driven by a madman, then a bumpy bus over the first mountains of the Tibetan ranges. Past the Dragon Jade mountain meadows with their cable cars & bus loads of Chinese tourists from the east, to a broad plain. Daju, at the eastern end of the gorge was our first Chinese village & we were the only tourists. It was lovely walking arround as night fell, all the locals saying hello as we watched the sun set over silent peaks.

Ben was suffering from fever since Hanoi, we tried to persuade him to rest for another day but he wouldn't: he is a true mountain man!. Barbara was suffering from period pain and her typical bad humour but as the morning came, she was ready to go: a proven mountain woman! (to Benji from Barbara: I did the whole gorge thinking of you behind me, pushing me on and calling me "llorica". I dedicate the torturous trek to you for all the good times we had climbing together).

So with fever, period pain, altitude sickness, full packs, a mini pharmacy & lloricas: we set out.
First a ferry across the Jinsha Jiang, then a steep hillside following locals with horses a through flields of corn & sunflowers. After only an hour Barbara was so asphixiated that Jacob emptied the contents of her pack into his own, and would carry it for the next three days. It was a great moment as we wandered through fields & villages trying to find our way. The huge gorge was ahead & the village we had left disappeared behind us. The air was extremly fresh but thin, the sun burnt our skin & the bells of donkeys & goats could be heard all around.

Dali Old City, Yunnan, China 12/09/05

We arrived to the first Chinese town we would stay in, after 34 hrs of travelling. It was never so good to have a wash & a coffee! We were excited to have a look at a Chinese town, even if is was a bit touristy. That is to say: Chinese touristy. We would discover that all over China there are always more domestic tourists than foreigners, and they seem to love bus tours, eating together, local nick-nacks and having a local dressed in traditional costume lead them around on a little tour while waying a little flag. Crazy!

Dali Old Town is a well preserved traditional town right under huge mountains. It's a big attraction because of the nice old buildings, cobbled streets, temples & pagodas. There are also lots of Tibetan, Naxi & other minorities groups from the region. We hung around in the streets, tried some typical food and ran around the supermarkets like crazy after two weeks of arguing with every single shop owner in Vietnam just to get a reasonable price. Its funny how you miss unexpected things and find them in unexpected places.

Barbara quickly stopped worrying about the great unknown. Since the language difficulty (the misterious nature of China had bothered us for months). We quickly realised that China is a civilized, disciplined, hard working & prosperous country. More importantly, it has plenty of culture. We planned to trek with Ben through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the most famous attractions in the country. We were so excited that we left the next day at 6am.

Hekou to Dali Old City, Yunnan, China 10-11/09/05

So, at last we had arrived! In the middle kingdom, China. The country we were most excited to visit. The first thing that surprised us was how friendly the immigration staff were. Especially since five minutes before the Vietnamese seemed happy to see us go. As we crossed the border we met Ben, a smart young French guy who we're sure will become a brilliant diplomat in future years. He would be our travelling companion for the Yunnan expedition. A real mountain man!

As soon as we stepped into the streets of Hekou, we smiled from ear to ear. It really was how we had imagined, another world. The only writing we could recognise were the numbers. Our first impression was right, China is completely self-sufficent. A culture with no need of the outside world. There is something about China & Chinese culture that we haven't seen anywere else.
Since we only had a thirty day visa & needed to cross the whole country, we jumped on the first bus to Kunming, capital of Yunnan. During this nine hour trip over huge mountains & through new cities, we had our first contact with the Chinese toilet. Lets just say, we hope you're not shy about doing your business in public: no walls, no doors!

We were thinking about staying in Kunming but we weren't ready to take on a Chinese city just yet. Kunming is a regular provincial capital, but the dimensions of Chinese cities are five times bigger than anywere else. Looking more like New York than what we expected, the three of us decided it would be too tiring to find a cheap hotel at nine o'clock after travelling for 24 hours.

So it was time for the sleeper bus! Just imagine a bus with beds instead of seats. Pillows instead of footrests. Blankets instead of seatbelts. It is wonderfull! The first time in our lives we were able to watch the passing scenery while lying down in a comfy bed! In the early morning the bus made a stop & we rushed out to use the toilet, thinking we didn't have much time. When the bus didn't move for ten minutes we thought we should just go to sleep. Two hours laters we woke up to find the bus hadn't moved. We had actually reached our destination but the driver let us sleep as long as we wanted. So is life on the "sleeper bus"!

Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island, Vietnam 8-9/09/05

Halong Bay is the pearl of the country, and is absolutely beautiful. More like an archipeligo of (limestone?) islands and rocks in a clear blue sea than a bay, it is worth a trip all on its own. We took an over-night tour on one of the fleet of tourist boats that go out to Cat Ba Island. It was great fun diving off the boat and checking out the scenery. Probably better to charter your own for a better exploration as it is a huge area, but who knows how easy that would be. There are millions of grottos and huge caves to see. The coolest thing are the floating villages (en gallego: mejilloneiras) where people live and farm fish in cages under houses that use barrels to keep them afloat.

To be honest we were keen to leave Vietnam so we took an over-night train to Lao Cai on the border with China.

Take it easy, Vietnam.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Hanoi, Vietnam 6-8/09/05

As soon as the bus dropped us off we were met by staff from a hotel who bundled us into a taxi along with a couple of other travellers. This is the usual scam in this part of the world: you say "no, no I can find my own hotel & I don't want to take a taxi", and they say "don't worry, we'll take you to your choice of hotel & the taxi is free!". Of course this is crap. And if you don't like the hotel you are taken to, you have to pay the taxi, and probably a little extra. Anyway, by now we were experts on scams & we always found a way to scam them back (with a lot of training). We were used to this stuff by now & funnily enough the hotel was great & we even negotiated/scammed a good rate for one of the best & cheapest rooms we have ever had. Like we said, it's a matter of training. On the top floor of the hotel, the room was excellent with views of the city on two sides, we felt like diplomatic visitors in a high tower.

We celebrated Barbara's brithday with pizza, beers, sponge cake with cream & Moon Cake. The food in Hanoi is really good but the people will try to run you down with their motorbikes, cheat you out of your life savings & if you get a smile in the street from a stranger you're a lucky man & you can go home happy.

The travel agents are liars, the staff at the railway station are full of shit and no-one is going to advise or help you for free. Don't even think about escaping the tourist trail unless you buy an old Soviet-era motorbike and take off on your own into the hills. On the upside there are plenty of cool bars & restaurants by the lake & a lot of the streets have a nice atmosphere.

We're also sure that, given a couple of months living in Hanoi, you'll love it. But Vietnam is maybe not the best place in the world for the independent traveller.

Hue, Vietnam 3/09/05

Hue is the historic capital of Vietnam, where emperors holed up in the Forbidden Purple City and lived lives of corrupt debauchery. Nowadays there isn't too much evidence of the past.

The city is full of motorbikes, dust, noise pollution, touts and new hotels. During the American War it was the scene of terrible fighting and much of the city was destroyed, as were many of the imperial buildings.

To be honest, we didn't do much apart from eating and looking around. We didn't really like the place, the people or the atmosphere, sorry. Maybe the Forbidden Purple City is really cool but we didn't go since the staff at the door were assholes! Hue SUCKS!!.

Hoi An, Vietnam 2-3/09/05

This is our favourite town in Vietnam, built near the sea around a river and in the traditional style. It has lots of restored buildings and narrow, cobbled streets. The style of architecture is quite Chinese to our eyes but then again we are not experts. Sure, most of the shops target tourists and are full of the type of junk that doesn't really appeal to us but the place is also a busy fishing village with one of those stinky markets that are very interesting.

We found a hotel near the market but Barbara instantly started to get paranoid about the bird-flu epidemic. Every time we passed she went into a panic and tried to cover her mouth and nose with her t-shirt, this was a little crazy since it hardly covered her body! We remembered a bacpacker we met who had told us that the only way to catch Avian Bird Flu is to breath in the dried faeces of an infected bird. You can imagine the scene in the smelly market filled with chickens ready to be butchered and plenty of fresh meat!

There are also a few local specialities like Lau Cau noodles and fried wontons. We had to take the waiters word on the authenticity of these but they were delicious.

On the other side of the river we found a stage and stalls all set up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Plenty of military guys milled around in their cool green uniforms with red trim. There was patriotic artwork and a huge cut-out of an AK-47. There were kites (cometas) in the shape of butterflies and birds with ten-foot wingspans flying in the sea breeze.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Nha Trang, Vietnam - 30/08-1/09/05

So we found ourselves on another night bus. But while we still had light we were amazed to see how built-up the country is. We must have driven for three hours along the main highway north of HCMC before we came to the countryside. Mile after mile of shops and houses lined the road, with endless streams of motorbikes weaving through the traffic.

We arrived at the seaside city of Nha Trang at sunrise and were greeted by a burning sun coming out of the sea and thousands of people exercising down by the beach. We wandered bleary-eyed past old and young doing tai-chi, playing badminton or running on the beach. For the next three days we never saw so many people in the street as there were at six in the morning. And where did all the retired folks go for the rest of the day?

The mission for this city was to get cool photos of the beautiful sunrise, with the blazing red, yellow and orange sky behind grannies and schoolkids getting their blood pumping before the heat of the day. We got up at five each morning and joined the hordes going to the shore. We heard soldiers doing some kind of parade-ground chanting and people asked us to take photos of them and where we were from. And did we like the beach? The city? Vietnam? We even met an old man with a passion for Maori literature! We didn't expect that!

The only other thing that came close to the sunrise was the "Moon Cake", that was sold at special stalls around the city. It is for a festival which is celebrated in August and is lovely, rich and as heavy as a fruit cake. They are made with buttery pastry on the outside and a mixture of sweet rice-flour, sesame and nut filling on the inside. They are sold in red boxes and are perfect for an afternoon beach snack.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 27-29/08/05

Once again we walked across the border. For us it is always the most exciting option. The Vietnamese immigration officers at Moc Bai were not really welcoming but they were professional, with health certificates issued and luggage x-rays required.

We jumped on the first "Happy Tours" bus which took us to the heart of the city. We got set up in Nam Ngu Lao, a backpackers & tourist area. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), is a very busy & dense city, high rise buildings, plenty of motorcycle traffic & pollution. We had big expectations after Cambodia. The first thing we realised is that the Vietnamese are not the most friendly people in the world, but we didn't want to judge them too early. The second thing is that ordinary Vietnamese women wear pyjamas all day and don't seem to care too much about their appearance, a bit different from the rest of Asian women. Anything is ok to wear. Everything matches, no hair-style & talcom powder slapped on without care. Vietnamese women seem to be terrified of the sunlight. They will wear gloves that come up to their shoulders, a scarf, socks, sunglasses & basically anything that will stop them getting a suntan. In this part of Asia white skin is the way to go.

We had a look around HCMC & made a tour around the Mekong Delta. We saw pythons and cobras. We drank snake wine and had coconut candy before taking a ride in local style canoes. We saw an excellent performance of Delta music played on the "Full Moon Guitar", and an instrument that looked like a large banjo and a two-stringed instrument played with a bow. Apparently they use a musical scale with five notes but we would need a lot of listening before we could get a grasp on the style, but it was good!

We were heading to the north up the coast and while looking for transport options we learnt all about the Vietnamese "open" bus tickets. We got the feeling that this system is really designed to try to channel "tourists" through approved routes around the country and not encourage people to wander too far off the beaten track. The trick is that the bus tickets are incredibly cheap. You buy a ticket for the length of the country with stops at a pretty limited range of cities and attractions. If you want to get around independently its very hard to say "no" when you see how much money you can save. Another popular option is a motorbike tour which looks good on paper but seems to offer a stilted view of the country since the guides are government-approved and are not free to take people where-ever they want to go. To be honest, we got the feeling that tourists are not really welcome to go wandering anywhere they want. And some places seem to be off-limits.

We hope we are wrong about all this and forgive our cynicism.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 25-27/08/05

Do you really want to know what Cambodia is like?

In April 1975, Khmer Rouge forces, led by Pol Pot, took over the country & forced the population to leave all urban areas. They justified this by blaming a bogus American invasion. The people were told they could return to their homes within three days. But this never happened. For the next four years, the Khmer Rouge lead a brutal revolution. They rejected the modern world (economy, technology, medicines, education...). It was a new society. It was the "Year Zero". They enslaved the whole population. They executed all academics & educated people, intellectuals, those who spoke a foreign language, ethnic minorities & even those who wore glasses. The people were forced to work the fields for only a spoon of rice a day, from dawn 'till dusk. Anyone strong enough to rebel was murdered. Malnutrition & disease claimed many hundreds of thousands of lives. Perhaps a quarter of the population died during this period.

The knowledge of this history really influenced our perception of the country. We found ourselves wondering about the personal histories of people we met or saw in the street. Anyone over the age of forty would have been directly involved, on one side or the other.
We wondered who was ex-Khmer Rouge, as there are thousands of leaders(the prime minister, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge leader who defected to the Vietnamese and was later installed as leader), and even more Khmer Rouge regulars who were never exposed or prosecuted for what they had done. We wondered who had lost family and friends or had suffered during forced labour.

Was it our imagination or was there a tense feeling in public places? Did people seem nervous and distrustful of each other or did we just think they should? Who were the plain-clothed men riding motorbikes around back streets in the evening with AK-47 assult rifles on their backs? Why did half the cars and all the motorbikes in the country have no number-plates?

Has Cambodia become a haven for organised crime and international money-laundering?
Or does it just look that way?



Tomorrow we are heading to the big one, the unstoppable, the indescipherable, the inexplicable, the Maoistly magnificacent.... C-H-I-N-A....

Now we're in Vietnam and we haven't had time to update, so hold on for that one!
We have also heard that we can't access the blog from China (surely just dis-information!), but if its true we'll be out for a month until we fly to Indonesia on the 10th of October.

The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia 24/08/05

In order to discover the supurb Angkor Wat we had the wonderful idea of going by bicycle. It is recommended by guide books to spend three or more days as the whole complex is about 72 sq. kms. But for economic(it is $20 a day), and time reasons we planned to see as much as we could in a day. Maybe a little crazy but its probably enough if you're not an archeologist! So we set off at dawn for the 6km. ride to the site.

Angkor was rediscovered by French explorers in the late 19th century and is the ultimate lost city of the jungle. When you first arrive and see the spectacle you realise this was the inspiration for all the films, books and the whole concept of the ancient civilization deep in the humid Asia of our daydreams. For five hundred years the forest had slowly swallowed it whole.
Today it is much more organised. There are plenty of restaurants and as much Coke as you can drink. The jungle has been cut back to a manageable distance. They also say the area has been de-mined! We didn't test this.

Even though the temples themselves have been cleared there are still some with fully-grown trees slowly breaking through. They appear in walls and on top of rooves made of massive pieces of stone. There are roots a foot thick winding around doorways like how garden creepers would. It makes for some great photos and an amazing atmosphere.

Many people assume Angkor is just one temple and we didn't realize how big it is. There must be fifty structures from single monuments to gateways, walls, bridges and then the huge temples themselves.
Angkor Wat is the centre-piece temple, about 300m. across with three high towers. The stone walkway across the moat to the entrance must have been the scene of mighty civic gatherings. You can just picture military victory parades with a cast of thousands. Feathers, flags, spears and elephants covered in embroidered armour. All presided over by a god-king dripping with jewels and tiger pelt. Wow!
Angkor Thom is the old city with a dozen buildings with names like "Terrace of the Leper King". The Bayon has stone faces two metres tall that have been staring with coy smiles for a thousand years. If you imagine hard enough and look past the piles of rubble and worn stone, there is something even more foreign.

We rode 40km., all day in the hot sun and still went back for the sunset.
You should too!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Siem Reap, Cambodia 21 - 25/08/05

When we couldn't agree whether to stay one night in the border or keep going, we tossed a coin...

We crossed a few minutes later and we did get a little shocked by the scene. And yes, Mr. Pablo Delgado, there is another country poorer than Cambodia: INDIA. After 10 weeks in India we managed to have everything under control but transport was going to be a problem. Actually the only transport from Poipet at the border to Siem Reap, home of the temples of Angkor, is what you can negotiate yourself. Either on the back of a truck with animals or labourers, a motorbike or a dodgy tourist bus. We were too tired for the former so we decided to take the famous tourist bus scam. We knew from guides & travellers info. that this road was one of the worst in Asia. The scam is that you buy an overpriced ticket for the tourist bus & they drive as slowly as they can over the bumpy road, stopping as many times as they can. When you finally arrive all the guest houses are closed & you have to stay at the one operating the bus. In our case, not only was the scam in operation, with fake breakdowns & stops at all their friends shops, but ther was a real incident.

At 11.30pm, after eight hours & only 100km, our way was blocked by a bus stuck nose-first on a broken bridge, just like in the movies (guagua cabeza abajo en un puente roto). It took three hours more to fix the bloody bridge with dozens of metal plates. By the time we left, there was a queue of buses, cars & motorbikes a km long on both sides of the bridge. We finally arrived at 03.30am, 35 hours after leaving Chang Mai & our longest & most chaotic journey so far. And man, were we exausted!

Siem Reap is the base from which to explore Angkor, the biggest temple complex & city ruin in the world. My God, it is so big!. Siem Reap is also a crazy city. The people are obviously poor but there are new five star hotels all over the city. In some places whole blocks have been recently built but the streets are full of begging children & amputees. A weird scene! It seems like plenty of outside money has come in to take advantage of Angkor. But the local people not involved in tourism are not so lucky. In fact, they all seem to want to be involved.
Everyone is selling drinks, postcards, motorbike tours, whatever they think a tourist might need. The strangest thing is that the prices are far more than what is reasonable. Poeple hassle you constantly, maybe even more than India! And they're not even offering a good deal. They only want dollars, all the prices are in $ & the people are happy to get them. We think it's really the fault of western tourists who pay whatever crazy sum the locals come up with. Reasonable? When you are on a short holiday maybe.

Coming soon: Do you want to know what the real Cambodia looks like? also Vietnam on the open bus... stay online!

Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai, Thailand 18 - 20/08/05

After our odessy to cross the border on time, we managed to arrive to Chiang Rai on the same day. Our next destination was Cambodia but the bad weather, the terrible roads & the big distances in Laos to get to northern Cambodia from the south was a little bit out of question. It was faster to cross the north of Thailand & get to Siem Reap from our well-known: Bangkok.

So we decided at least to stop in the most famous cities in the north of Thailand. We knew what to expect thanks to several recomendations from other travellers: higly touristc cities basically. And they were! The main attraction is the "hill tribes" paraphernalia. We didn't really have too much time to spend on them and with the river episode we were well served! Unfortunately we knew also that these hill tribes areas in the north of Thailand are nowadays reduced to tourism for mass profit. The tribes are constantly exposed to tourists, they nowadays use machines to do what hundreds of hands use to do in double the time, and they even charge in dollars if you let them. Even the efforts of local government to stop the impact is in vane. It looks like nothing can stop the super fast development & prosperity of Thailand compared with her neighbors.
It was a shame not to have the time to explore deep into the mountains, but we also know that these hill tribes come originally from China, Laos & TheHimalayas, so maybe soon...

In two days we crossed the north and we split from our two French friends.
From Chinag Mai we took a night bus to Bangkok and then, in the early morning, another bus right to the Cambodian border, it took us 17 hours.

A couple of minutes after getting out of the bus, just when it had left, Jacob realised that he had forgotten his guitar on the bus! Too late. He blamed himself for 15 minutes but miraculously he managed to make himself understood to some people working for the bus company. They quickly called the bus driver who wasn't far away from the city. Jacob took a motobike taxi & went on a guitar rescue!

Nam Tha & Mekong Rivers, Laos 17 - 18/08/05

Without knowing what to expect from the two day river option, we headed down to the river boat ramp with Elodie & Michel. We hoped to negotiate with the boat operator but the price was set at $110. It was a little more that our budget but it seems that sometimes to escape the jungle you have to pay the boat man! Especially when he knows that he's got you by the balls! The boat seemed to be very small, the river very big & the boatman very old! But the rain didn't stop so it was our only hope. Anyway, we were excited by the idea of a boat cruise on the river & Michel finally got his wish.

The boat was similar to the one we used to cross the border with Burma: 6m long and 1.5m wide! A bamboo & plastic shelter covered the middle section with just enough room for four. The four of us squeezed together not to get wet and stay warm. The river was flowing very fast & was swollen from all the rain: it had broken it's banks & the jungle came down in an impenetrable wall into the muddy water. It was one of the most spectacular sights we have seen. Jungle covering all the hils and limestone-cliffs. We passed dozens of small villages only accesible by boat & kids running to the riverside to say hello.

In the first couple of hours we traversed many rapids, the river often forked in two & we wondererd if it was a good idea as we saw ourselves swimming in the raging waters. But the boatmen were incredibly skilful, in fact, we've never seen anything like it. They steered a path around trees growing in the middle of the river, cut across rapids to calm water and seemed to know which fork to choose when it looked like the jungle would swallow us up. We did get wet though. Between the rain & waves we were actually all soaked when we arrived for lunch at a village built on stilts. In the distance we heard a storm coming so we grabbed some sticky rice & took off.
The sun broke through & Jacob pulled out his guitar(now we were cruising the river to a reggae groove!), while Michel & Barbara shot photos of the passing scenery. But soon the storm caught up with us & we huddled togother while the rain came down. We all thanked the Gods when we arrived at the boatmans village. His house would be our home for the night.

The village was on the side of a hill surrounded by jungle. Wooden & bamboo houses connected by tiny muddy paths & no electricity or running water. We immediately saw the communal, open bathing area(with a single bamboo pipe for water). Men having showers in underwear, women with a piece of textile wrapped around them. We decided not to take a shower for the time being...
The boatman's family was already waiting for us at the house. They showed us our room at the top of the house & while our two French friends were organizing all their wet luggae, Jacob & Barbara decided to come downstairs to socialise. We wondered why we did! As soon as we showed up Jacob was taken by the boatman and all his funny friends, seated down on a chair and a parade of local alcohol & BeerLao was displayed on a table.
At the same time, around 20 old & young women enclosed Barbara in a circle, sat her down on a tiny chair & begin to display thousands of homemade textiles, clothes, complements, etc. Then there was about 20 minutes of hard selling with all the ladies screaming, pushing oneanother and touching Barbara all over. About 15 children came into the room as well to watch the two foreigners in amazement. So there were around 40 people in that living room & even more watching from outside through the windows... It was time for Barbara to collapse. The sweat began and suddenly she suffered a cardiac crisis. She asked (screamed actually) Jacob to come and rescue her because the ladies wouldn't let her go. Brave Jacob managed to pull her away before she died of a heart attack. After some tense negotiations & a couple of shots of Laolao (local sprit), beers & cigarettes, we bought a couple of things. The women disappeared as quicky as they had come. But the children stayed for games!
Later we decided to go and make a "tour" of the village & maybe find a little bit of peace. Impossible. The village was surrounded by fences on the edge of the dense jungle, we couldn't even find a path or gate. It must be to stop large animals coming in from the forest (tigers, bears, Elephants?!), so we were basically trapped & most of the villages looked at us like visitors from another planet. The night came & enveloped the village in complete darkness, so we couldn't really go anywhere anyway!
They called us to dinner & we sat down to sticky rice & a rather tasteless soup with an audience of twenty. Barbara was the only one who finished the soup! Then it was time for a Lao opera on the battery-operated TV. The audience in the living room swelled to fifty & before long it seemed the whole village was there. We don't really know what the opera was about, but it seemed to be the story of a princess & an elephant. Jacob was indulging in the Laolao with the boatmen & his drunken, opium-smoking friends. He swore it was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard (obviously already drunk!). Barbara was not so sure but politely watched the show & wondered how many more locals would squeeze into the room.

We all slept upstairs with the family spread all around (grandma in the corner - still smoking what we swore was a cuban cigar!). At 05.15 am the cock crowed & we rose to the jungle dawn. By 05.45 the boatman's son was playing Thai. rock music super loud on the huge battery-operated sound system. It seemed to be to wake up the whole village!
We left quicky & the village kids came to the river to wave us goodbye.

The next seven hours passed without incident except for four hours of heavy rain (us all wet again), a couple of breakdowns, and a collision with a bush which prompted a massive insect invasion of the boat. Barbara's & Elodie's screams were heard echoing around the river valley...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Luang Nam Tha, Laos 15/08 - 17/08/05

The Nam Tha National Park & protected area is in the far north-west of Laos, near the borders with Burma & Thailand. It was established with the help of the New Zealand government and has fine mountain jungle with plenty of big game & hill-tribe villages.

It was our goal!

The chance of seeing tigers & remote settlements sounded great but the rain didn't make it easy. The "new" road over the last 40km to Luang Nam Tha had been turned into a river of mud by the recent rains. We finally made it into town with about twenty other westerners at about eight o'clock at night, in the rain. We walked around town with a bunch of French backpackers looking for accomodation, in the rain & mud. Everywhere was full so we continued walking up and down the streets of the tiny town for hours, in the dark and the rain and mud. We even split up to cover more ground. Barbara won. She managed to find a super cheap and lovely place deep in the dark while Jacob waited in the rain & mud.

The next day we woke to the sound of the heavy rain. The "French connection" & us planned to go trekking but the rain kept coming down & more mud appeared all around. By the next day we started to rethink the whole tiger- spotting, hill-tribe village trekking concept. After a visit to the park headquarters we decided that wading through knee-deep mud while mosquitos suck our life away may not be as much fun as we first thought. So we spent the day drinking Beer Lao. We also heard the buses had been stopped because of the rain & even some border crossing closed. All of a sudden it looked like we might want to rent an apartment!

So we had four options: 1) stay & enjoy the rain drinking beer: impossible since we had to meet Barbara's parents in Auckland on November the 27th & we're already running late. 2) Take a bus back to the capital the way we came, via Luang Prabang again: impossible, we're not doing that again! 3) Take a jeep with twenty other passengers for 15 hours over the disaster of a road to Huay Xai, on the Thai border: impossible, because when we went at 7am to get the jeep there were 50 passengers, only 2 jeeps! and buses suspended. 4) Charter a boat down the Nam Tha & Mekong rivers for two days to Huay Xay. Possible, its the only choice!.
The brave Franc & Laurent from the "French connection" opted for the jeep option, sharing a jeep for six with 20 others. Us, Michel & Elodie opted for the river adventure! And without expecting it, that's what we had...

Coming soon: Adventures on the river & villages! Cambodia and Vietnam.

Luang Prabang, Laos 13/08 - 15/08/05

The ten hour bus trip to Luang Prabang is amazing. We fell in love with the country as we passed through rice terraces, limestone peaks, steamy jungle & bamboo villages on the sides of mountains. It's truely a rich, green land & as the bus crawled over high passes we reached the clouds & felt far away from capitalist civilisation. No electricty or telecommunications. Just muddy paths & shacks surrounded by crops & forest.

This is route 13! which may be in the middle of nowhere but has been the scene of several attack on buses, shootings & hyjacks. When we read about this we were a bit worried but at least nothing has happened recently. Apparently the government doesn't know who's responsible for these attacks. We did see soldiers in fox holes by the side of the road & a truck full of soldiers. Half way along Route 13 a young guy with an AK-47 rifle borded the bus and travelled with us for the most dangerous section of the trip. Poor Barbara was nervous though because every time someone went to the toilet on the bus he had to move from his little plastic chair arranged in the middle of the corridor. He did it about fifteen times & didn't look happy at all. So little Barbara waited for five hours to piss while, of course, Jacob went!

Luang Prabang is suprisingly touristy, it is a beautifull setting with hills and temples in the mountains. But the sad theory is that all the really nice places have become full of markets & expensive restaurants and Lonely Planet readers. (We are beginning to hate Lonely Planet, well, we did at the beginning of Thailand). Jacob ranted & raved about the loss of innocence & Barbara growled about the ridiculously high prices quoted in US$ by "hill tribe" villagers who come down to town to make a killing of the tourists.
Here is where we started to get really pissed off with being treated like "dollar dispensers" (see future post: Cambodia, Vietnam), and pushed us to head north for some jungle trekking far from the masses.

Vientane, Laos 11/08 - 13/08/05

Also known as "our favourite country so far!"

As we rode into Vientane, capital of Laos, in a hybrid motorcycle with carriage on the back, we knew this was a differernt country. Everything was in slow motion. People so relaxed we felt we should leave our stress at the border. We weren't even sure it was the capital when we arrived. There is more traffic in a New Zealand country town.! It was quiet on the main streets, maybe it was a Holiday? No, Vientane is just mellow. A city of trees. The Meking flows past a riverfront with no promenade, just grass with outdoor restaurants under umbrellas. If this is communism then... it's good!

Our first taste of socialism & also the first baguette since we left Europe. After an overninght train across Thailand with no sleep in a freezing carriage, an egg baguette was our savour.
After crossing the "Friendship Bridge" in the morning heat & waiting for Lao immigration, a "Beer Lao" was our angel (and yes, it's true what the guide says, Beer Lao is the best in Asia).

In the afternoon we met a young guy down by the river. He quickly approached us & asked if we could help him with his English....we couldn't refuse. He told us he cycles 25km from his village every day after working with his family just to look for tourists and practice what he learns at school. His dream was to study in the US & return to Laos & help develop the country. His entusias & vigor was an amazong sight, as was his list of complex words for pronunciation practise. We obviously agreed to meer him the next afternoom & there he was: waitng in the rain when we arrived.
We were anxious to see more of the country so we wished him luck & he gave us his address in unreadable Lao script for future correspondance. He thanked us, said he would never forget us... and that's the last time we saw him.
We hope he remembers us when he becomes President!