Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hoi An & Halong Bay (Vietnam)

After another gruelling overnight bus trip, we arrived bright and early in Hoi An, a charming little town on the coast in central Vietnam where the streets of the old town are lined with tailors' shops who do 'made to measure' clothes in 24 hours, for bargain prices. All the shops are identical in design with dark wooden shop fronts and signs with their names in gold writing.

After checking into a hotel we went to get measured up and to pick out our fabrics. Two fittings and less than a day later our new clothes were ready, packaged up and in the post back to the UK. Now let's just hope they arrive safely!

The bars and restaurants on the riverfront and nearby main streets are lined with colourful Chinese silk lanterns. Classical music is piped through the old town and after dark lanterns were floated down the river. We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An during their full moon celebrations, where the local children parade and dance through the streets in Chinese dragon costumes to the sound of taiko drums.

The bars all serve 'fresh beer' for around the equivalent of 10 pence a glass (as cheap as drinking bottled water!) and restaurants are all small, family-run affairs. If you go to the toilet in a restaurant you can expect to see the family's toothbrushes and toiletries lined up in the bathroom.
Great pride is taken in preparing the food and we've had some fantastic meals, with little worry of getting ill, especially the local specialities. I'll certainly miss the cuisine here when we move on to our next country.

The beach in Hoi An is the best beach we've been to yet. 30km of golden sands stretch between Hoi An and Danang and standing on the shore, the beach is all you can see in either direction. The sea was like bath water, but still offered relief from the sweltering temperatures in the sun. So scorching was the sun that Kev even managed to burn whilst sitting in the shade!

From Hoi An we took the overnight train from nearby Danang to capital city, Hanoi. We spent 16 hours on a hard bed, but it felt much more civilised and comfortable than taking the sleeper bus again - and also made for a good opportunity to meet the locals. I awoke in the morning to find two Vietnamese people sat on the end of my bed, chatting.

Like the vehicles on the road, the train also drives with the 'hand on horn' approach so we were glad not to be sitting too close to the driver's cab. It's not uncommon to see people walking along the train tracks, where they run parallel to the side of the road as it's safer than walking along the roadside, so I guess that makes sense to sound the horn.

Breakfast on the train consisted of steamed rice, chicken, cucumber and a portion of watery soup with green leaves and herbs. A bit of an alternative to our usual fare but enjoyable nevertheless. Coffee in Vietnam is served strong and sweet with a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass - quite an acquired taste when I'm so used to my cup of tea in the morning, but the strong coffee certainly does the trick!

By the time we arrived in Hanoi our time in Vietnam was really beginning to run low so we jumped straight on a tour to Halong Bay, foregoing any major sight-seeing in Hanoi itself.

Halong Bay was every bit as stunning as we had hoped for. We boarded a traditional Chinese junk boat in the morning and checked into our cabin and had lunch on deck. Being low season, there were only six of us on the tour, so we had time to fit in more to our itinerary and a had nice laid-back group.

Highlights were visiting Ti Top Island and climbing the 424 steps to the summit, affording us some stunning views out across the bay. We also had an opportunity to kayak to the 'Hidden Lagoon', whose entrance was through a low cave. Once inside we could see the limestone formations and dense jungle up close. You can imagine my delight when we saw a group of 8 or 9 monkeys - including some tiny babies - frolicking on the cliffs and swinging from the trees by the water's edge. I think this was a personal favourite moment of the trip so far!

We spent a night on the boat and were awoken at 1am by a spectacular thunder and lightening storm. The lightening was like nothing I have seen before, flickering incessantly like a broken strip light, lighting up the bay as the seas stirred up and the boat twirled around it's anchor. The thunderstorm continued on through the early hours of the morning and we all took to watching it - far more exciting than trying to sleep.

We spent a final night in Ha Noi where we sampled some of the street food and a couple of local beers before getting up early for our flight to Malaysia.

The taxi we got to the airport was terrifying! Not only was the fuel gauge flashing on empty for the entire 30km journey but the driver kept falling asleep at the wheel. His response to this was to pull into the slow lane with his indicator on. Unfortunately he spoke no English so didn't understand when we tried to tell him to pull over for a bit. We basically had to watch his eyes and shout at him if he looked like he was drifting off. It was such a relief when we finally arrived safely at the airport!

So our next stop is Kuala Lumpur for two nights then it's off to Borneo.

Speak to you again soon.

Sarah & Kev xx

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ho Chi Minh City & Nha Trang (Vietnam)

We arrived in Vietnam the day before my birthday on another bumpy coach journey, though the roads were nowhere near as bad as the guide books would have us believe. Plunged into hectic Ho Chi Minh City in the evening rush hour, we were relieved to find our hostel just across the road from where the bus dropped us - and right in the heart of the backpacker district, chock full of bars and restaurants.

We spent day one wandering around the city, sampling some delicious pho (noodle soup) and spring rolls, and trying out one or two of the many local beers. In the afternoon we took a stroll through the market and on to the War Remnants Museum, which housed a fascinating gallery of photographs in addition to the gory facts.

On day two Kev treated me to a nice hotel with a pool on the roof for my birthday plus a trip to the nearby Dan Sen Water Park where we tried out some quite terrifying water slides (I think I'm turning into a bit of a scardy-cat in my old age, I never used to get frightened by water slides no matter how fast they go!)

The hotel served up an interesting breakfast of rice and noodles with a choice of chicken curry and beef in red wine sauce, as well as the more breakfast-like breads, jams and eggs. Needless to say we tried a bit of everything, even the chilli sauce on the side!

After just a short stay in Ho Chi Minh City we jumped on a sleeper coach to Nha Trang. The ten-hour journey was relatively comfortable owing to the fact that we had seats that reclined right back to horizontal, though space was in short supply on the full bus. The bumpy roads meant we didn't get a massive amount of sleep but it certainly beats trying to sleep sitting up.

We found a lovely little place to stay in Nha Trang called the Happy House Hotel, a stone's throw away from the beach and just minutes from the bars and restaurants. Perfect.

Apparently Nha Trang Municipal Beach is rated as one of the top beaches in the world, and with six kilometers of golden sands, warm seas and beautiful weather it's not hard to see why. It was sad to see so much litter in the sea when the tide came in though (and a relief that it was a plastic bag and not in fact a jellyfish as I previously feared!)

The following day we went on a 'booze-cruise' thinly disguised as a boat trip, to visit four of the off-islands. Whilst it wouldn't normally be our cup of tea we had a real giggle and it was great fun to socialise with other travellers, as up until now it's just been the two of us. Highlights included doing backward somersaults off the roof of the boat (me, not Kev!) and a floating bar set up by the boat company, which was dishing out free cocktails. I was less keen on being forced into doing karaoke - which the Vietnamese seem to love - but after a couple of beers it didn't seem so bad!

I was excited to find out my friend Jojo, who I did my massage training with, and who has been travelling around Asia since March was in town so we went out for dinner in the evening to catch up. Small world!

On our final morning in Nha Trang we decided to have a go at scuba diving - something Kev has been very keen to do, but which terrified me. Still, after a few tears (of fear) before I could bring myself to jump into the water, I decided I actually quite liked it and even braved a second dive (with an instructor holding my hand all the way!)

Visibility wasn't great (probably about 5 metres) but we did see some brightly coloured coral and lots of fish, including a jelly fish, which I didn't want to get too close too, even if it wasn't a dangerous one!

So the next destination on our itinerary is Hoi An - home to hundreds of tailors who will tailor you a suit - or any other item of clothing, for that matter - in 24 hours. We'll try not to go too shopping-crazy!

Speak to you soon,

Love, Sarah & Kev x

Phnom Penh & Sihanoukville (Cambodia)

Phnom Penh is a bustling city set on the banks of the Sap river. There is a vibrant night market and a busy stretch of riverside bars and restaurants, but just another city to us, really.
Our hotel was just a short walk from town, however there didn't seem to be any pedestrian crossings so crossing the road was a bit of a daunting experience - simply relying on the goodwill of drivers to stop for us! (I have heard that Vietnam is even more crazy in this department so we'll look upon this as 'training').

In all the major cities across Cambodia there is an massage school called 'Seeing Hands', which employs only blind people. Kev and I had a treatment here and enjoyed the fact that the therapist was really feeling his/her way - as opposed to the routine so often offered by 'seeing' therapists. Unfortunately for Kev though, his therapist spoke no English so he couldn't tell (or show!) him his badly sunburned arms. Being blind was a bit of a hindrance on this occasion and it made for a bit of a painful treatment for poor Kev!

After a night in Phnom Penh we got a bus to Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia, home to glorious golden sandy beaches (though not a patch on Cornwall's, of course) and beautiful warm, turquoise waters (fortunately much warmer than the Atlantic I've grown up swimming in).

The bus ride from Phnom Penh was quite an experience - and I think the same applies across the whole of Cambodia. You can expect crazy overtaking on single carriageways, preceded by a hand on the horn, which basically means, "get out of my way, I'm coming through!" Smaller or slower vehicles are expected to pull off the road on to the dusty roadside to allow the larger vehicle to pass. This basically meant the horn beeping constantly for the entire four hour journey and frequently looking up to see us overtaking someone - and consequently being on the wrong side of the road with another large vehicle coming straight for us!

There are no advertised speed limits so drivers tend to go as fast as they can. Maybe the suspension on the (old) 'luxury' coach wasn't up to much either, so it certainly made for a bumpy journey!

We stayed just off Serendipity Beach in a little hotel with a nice pool, which would become a great relief from the hassle we were to receive on the beach everyday from people trying to sell to us.

Serendipity Beach is long and thin and lined with bars & restaurants it's entire length - a lovely place to stop for some fresh barbecued seafood and a beer or a cocktail after a busy day's swimming and sunbathing. That is until you sit down and then you get approached time after time by kids selling bracelets and fresh fruit, ladies selling massage, pedicures and threading, people begging... It just does not end. If you say you do not want to buy you have to go into full reasons why you don't want to buy - and repeat for everyone which comes by. It is utterly exhausting, to the point where we chose to spend a day by the pool to avoid having to bat anyone away.

Among the many tactics these kids use to engage you, they often ask where you're from and on replying, "England", they all come back with, "lovely jubbly!" Ok, so it's fairly safe to say Delboy & Co are popular on these shores. However what I found really strange was the large number of children who respond to me saying I'm from England by saying, "I'm from Scotland" (in a Scottish accent). I have no idea where they have got this from but found it very amusing. Answers on a postcard if you know what this is all about!

We arrived in Sihanoukville on a Sunday to find mostly Cambodians on the beach - who all seemed to find it quite a novel experience to see a white girl in a bikini. Though having read the guide book before arrival I was sure I didn't read anything about not wearing a bikini on the beach... Some Cambodian lads found it hilarious and bounded over to sit next to me whilst their mate took a picture on his camera phone! Then I noticed even the Cambodian girls were swimming in all their clothes. Fortunately, when I arrived on the following morning there were lots more Western girls there in their bikinis and I fortunately didn't have any more problems.

On another interesting beach related note, we noticed how they don't build sandcastles here, but sand temples shaped like Angkor!

After a few days rest and relaxation we took the bus back up to Phnom Penh for an evening before heading across the border to Vietnam. We fitted in a quick visit to the 'Killing Fields' - another gruesome reminder of the recent war in Cambodia - before our bus departed to Ho Chi Minh City.

So next up is Vietnam. I can't believe we're moving on to our third country already. Time is certainly flying!

(Photo albums from Thailand and Cambodia to be posted online shortly - watch this space for the links)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

Hello from Cambodia! We've had another few busy days. Following on from our 12 hour journey from Thailand we (madly) agreed on a 4:30am start the next day to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. One of the drawbacks of visiting in the wet season (as we are) however was that it was too cloudy to see a beautiful sunrise. It was very cool arriving in the dark though and watching the temples emerge from the blackness.
What we weren't then prepared for were the hoards of sales prople trying to sell us coffee, cold water, guide books and silk scarves! "You want coffee, lady?" became a bit of a catchphrase we would hear many, many times.
Outside the temples we were also met by lots of Cambodian children selling postcards and bracelets. I was amazed not only by their standard of English but also their ability to reason with you and try and persuade you to buy! Some of the kids approaching us can't have been more than seven or eight years old and on telling them I don't want to buy a guide book because I can't carry anymore stuff in my rucksack, they will look at Kev and say, "but he can carry it for you!"
It's quite exhausting constantly batting people away telling them you don't want to buy anything but in a poor country like Cambodia we are perceived as the rich westerners and everyone wants "just one dollar" from us.

So, on to the temples. We hired a tuktuk and driver for two mornings to take us round the temples and show us the sights, then on day three we hired bikes from the hostel and cycled round some of the temples nearest to our accommodation.
First up was the Angkor Wat (the famous one):

Then it was on to Bayon, which was my personal favourite:

Ta Prohm (otherwise known as 'Tomb Raider Temple'

Those of you familiar with the Tomb Raider computer game might appreciate the following, though I must admit it's lost on me!

I was taken aback by how many young amputees there are in Cambodia, all as the result of the massive landmine problem here. During the war millions of mines were laid but without being counted, or any maps of their location being created. Mines remain active for up to 150 years and are littered all over Cambodia.
We visited the Cambodian Landmine Museum to find out about founder Aki Ra, who single-handedly goes out everyday to find and disarm landmines. He has also set up an orphanage and school for child victims of landmines, which are still a massive problem for Cambodian people who rely on going into the forest to search for food.
We thought this was a great idea: - charity soap in the shape of a landmine; as it gets smaller so does the number of mines in the world.

Siem Reap is a busy and friendly tourist town and where all the visitors to Angkor stay. We were amused to find the main strip of restaurants and bars on a road called 'Pub Street', for obvious reasons, really! There is a great selection of good value Khymer and Western food and bar promotions though Cambodia is not as cheap as we expected since the tourists are charged a separate rate in dollars. Still, you can get a good meal for $3 or $4 and plenty of places offer draft beer for 50 cents, so we're not exactly getting ripped off!

Next it's off to Phnom Penh and then on to the beaches of Sihanoukville.

Will blog again in a few days.
Love Sarah & Kev xx

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Postcards from Thailand

Well what a busy few days we've had! Bangkok was crazy, non-stop and very, very hot. As we stepped off the plane we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity, a lot like going into into a steam room. We were relieved to have booked into a lovely hostel with a pool and very stylish outdoor bar area where we discovered the delights of Chang beer (and the corresponding hangover after finding out it's 6.5% proof!)

Not to be defeated by the jet lag we headed straight out to soak up as much culture as possible. First up was the city temples and the Grand Palace, outside which you have to leave your shoes before you can enter. In the surrounding streets I was amused to see rows of market stalls selling worn shoes, which I can only assume have been pinched from outside the temples!

Next up was the Khao San Road to try our hands at bartering and to stop for a couple of Thai beers, but it's literally impossible to sit still for two minutes without being hassled to buy some piece of tat (I'm good for wooden croaking frogs, beaded bracelets and croched hats, thanks.) The offer of 'fish massage' was intriguing but I'm a little bit too squeamish, I think!

The jet lag did eventually catch up with us the following day, when we couldn't sleep all night but then didn't wake up until 1pm. So we took a stroll around the weekend market at Chatuchuk, eyeing up the bewildering array of street food (only for the brave or initiated, I think!) and then resting our weary bodies with an hour's foot and shoulder massage, all for the princely sum of about four quid.

On our final day in Thailand we left the city behind to do a day trip to Ayuthaya, the old Siamese capital to take in the old temple ruins. I was fascinated to see baby elephants being used to give tourists tours of the area. We even had our photo taken sitting on a baby elephant's knee! It was scary and thrilling being so close to a huge wild animal, but in hindsight, so sad to see the elephants being made to do tricks, getting into poses for the tourists' delight - not wild at all really and probably drugged to avoid risk of the animals hurting anyone...

The train to the Cambodian border was an interesting experience: six hours trundling through rural Thailand and some lovely snapshots of local culture from the windows. We seemed to be the only Westerners on board, so we had no idea what was going on when the train apparently hit something on the track and we stopped in the middle of nowhere in the blistering heat. No one appeared to speak any English either, so we were relieved when the train shuddered back into motion within an hour or so. The border crossing itself was suprisingly quick and easy, and the journey to Siem Reap was altogether pleasant, albeit a sweaty one on a coach sans air conditioning.

My next post to you will be from Angkor Wat - a sight we've been really looking forward to seeing.

Sarah & Kev xx