2 Buckets Later in Laos….

Currently I’m in Laos right now.   Unfortunately, Laos being the last country on my list for South East Asia, I find myself stretched for time as I used up some of the time for Laos in other countries.   I had to be selective about where I was going to go.  My friend, who had travelled here last year, told me to avoid Vang Vieng.  Vang Vieng is known for its partying culture.  It’s famous for tubing down this river that is lined with bars.  Each year, so many people get injured and die, because they are too drunk.  Everybody talks about the partying in this town, but no one talks about it beauty.  Vang Vieng is one of the most stunning places I have ever been too.  It’s this valley surrounded by limestone hills jutting straight out of the ground.  Inside these hills are caves waiting to be explored.  It’s so dramatic.

I decided to visit Vang Vieng because so many other travellers told me that there was more to this town than just the partying.  The town itself lacks any culture whatsoever.  It’ s this strange collection of guesthouses, restaurants and bars that span a few roads.  There are a string of bars that play all day long either Friends or Family Guy.  But just a stone’s throw away and you are away from the craziness and into the beauty of the area.  I went there with absolutely no intentions of tubing.  However, this lovely British couple (Zoe and Chris) that I met in Vietnam and did a couple of tours with, were in Vang Vieng when I was there.  We decided that we were going to go tubing for the experience and not get drunk.  But I didn’t get around to tubing.  The reason… read below:

I only spent two nights in Vang Vieng.  The first night when I met up with Zoe and Chris, we decided to head to one of the bars where free buckets were being given out.  Zoe and I shared the bucket as Chris stuck to beers.  The crowd was young, the music commercial and dancy.  The vibe… not really my thing.  But it’s amazing how you can loosen up after a few buckets.   What I learned about myself…after 2 buckets, I become a Go Go dancer.  Yes, all my dance training came out that night.  I was a one woman show!  But admittedly,  I was having a blast, dancing like no one was watching (but people were watching and there are some photos).  I felt fine that night.  I should have realized that I was not doing well when I thought, as I was crossing the rickety bamboo bridge that normally sways with each step, that it was very sturdy that night.

The next morning, I could hardly stand up.  Red bull is evil… red bull and whiskey are evil!   It took me forever to get out of bed and dressed.  I somehow managed to get over to see my friends.  The plan had been to go biking to see some caves in the morning and then tube in the afternoon.  Well, the biking didn’t happen.  We got motorbikes instead.  I didn’t hike up any hills in the heat to see caves.  I kept as horizontal as I could.  The tubing was nixed as well.  Just not in the mood.    But I must say that the day wasn’t a total write off.  There’s no better way to get over a night out by lying in wooden huts near pools of water while mountains rise up from the ground to the sky in front of you.  🙂

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Highlights from Vietnam

My favourite places that I visited in Vietnam were Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Sapa.

The old town of Hoi An is a beautiful French Colonial city with narrow streets and lanterns hanging everywhere.  In the evenings, these lanterns are lit up and the town is breathtaking.  There are great cafes and restaurants to sample from.  After having travelled through modern looking cities it was really nice to have a glimpse of what Vietnam looked like in the past.

If you are interested in having clothes made, this is also the place to do it.  I wasn’t supposed to have anything made as I am waiting to make some dresses in China, but I couldn’t resist!  After my friend had a suit made, I went crazy and had a pair of pants, a skirt and a dress made!  After this experience, I don’t think I’ll get pants made again as this tailor left no room for expansion in the waist.

 

Next was Ha Long Bay.  Being that it was winter when I was visiting, I didn’t get the blue skies, but it was still an impressive sight to see and the cloudiness set a different type of mood.  My friend and I did a 3 day/2 night tour.  We spent 1 night on a boat and the other night on Cat Ba Island.  The scenery is just magnificent.  It was wonderful to just sit and observe.  We were able to do some kayaking as well.  My friend and I were not the most in sync while kayaking and therefore, moving in a straight line became a challenge for us.  It wasn’t until the end of our time in the water that we finally were able to move quickly and efficiently in the water.

On the island, we were able to do some trekking.  I stupidly thought that trekking would be easy walking and didn’t take my hiking boots.  Then I found out that trekking was actually climbing up a steep hill.  I was determined in my sandals to do the climb.  It didn’t help that the ground was wet and muddy.  I managed.  I held up the group on the way down as I was relying on my hands holding onto rocks and trees to keep me from slipping.  Cat Ba Island would have provided us with time to go to the beach, but it was way too cold for that.

Finally but definitely not last was Sapa.  I hadn’t planned to go to Sapa at all, but then when I met up with my friend Ash in Bangkok, who had recently been to Vietnam, who told me to go to Sapa, I listened.  Everyone after him, told me to go to Sapa.  Sapa, being in the north, would be cold at this time and the views may not be great as it would be cloudy, but I still took the chance and went.

It was so worth it!  I did trekking for 3 days with a homestay.  The first day which thankfully was the worst day for mistiness was the easiest day.  The second and third days were the hardest days for trekking.  The trekking was difficult not because it was all uphill, but because it was muddy and slippery.  They had us walking in the edges of rice terraces with these narrow ledges where if you slipped, you’d either step into water or fall down into the terrace below you.  We had these village ladies following us to give as support and a hand when needed.  Of course, they were doing this so that we would feel obliged at the end to buy their handicrafts.  Some people were wearing rain boots and so with ease they plodded through the rice paddies and the 6 inches of mud.  While the rest of us in trekking boots, stepped carefully and tried to avoid getting mud and water into our shoes.  I did have a slip and I was holding onto my village lady.  slipped down two terraces and was so muddy.  Thankfully, it only happened once.

We had one night in a homestay.  Most people complained that with the homestay, you didn’t interact much with the host family.  However, it was different in our homestay.  We sat and watched Vietnam’s Got Talent with ours!

Although the weather wasn’t ideal, we did get some amazing overcast views on the second and third days.   Although I complained the whole way through the muck and guck, I loved every minute  of it. 🙂

My Travelling Companion

I have been travelling from December 1 on my own.  I was able to meet up with friends along the way, but I had a friend of mine fly out to Vietnam to spend 9 days with me.  

My friend who shall remain nameless is an old friend and it was great to have him with me for the company and to observe his reactions to Asia .  Of course with him being a guy, I was feeling more secure especially for walking after the sun sets.  On our first night walking around the streets of Hoi An, I soon discovered that I couldn’t rely on him to be my protector.  We were walking along in the street and then he suddenly yelled and started running down the street, leaving me in his dust.  He had seen a mouse!  

Mice aside, it was interesting travelling with him because it was the first time that he had ever done independent travelling on a small budget.  He’s used to staying at fancy hotels and having drivers take him around to see the sights.  He’s used to dining at the best restaurants and going to the poshest bars and clubs.  It was funny watching his reactions to this different way of travelling.  He laughed at the buses- both the regular ones for being slightly worn down and the sleeper buses which have semi-reclined beds instead of seats.  The funny thing is that the buses are good in Vietnam!  I can’t imagine how he would have reacted to the buses in Burma!   He didn’t like the bathrooms with only shower heads and no bath tub for the water to collect.  Although he got into the spirit of bargaining, he couldn’t believe at times that he was haggling over a dollar on souvenirs and hotels.  

Even though the culture of budget travelling perplexed him, he was a trooper.  He didn’t complain or stomp his feet; and he enjoyed the trip inspite of it.  He became so good at haggling for souvenirs and rooms because  he would just turn on his charm and flirt if he had to.  He was so good at it, that he had 60+ year old ladies eating out of the palm of his hands! 

I enjoyed having the company and I am glad that he has seen another way to travel.  He is glad as well that  he has had this experience.  With every new experience comes self learning.   He has learned that it wasn’t too bad to travel this way, but he’ll never choose to do it this way again! 🙂

The Massage Junkie’s Adventures Continued

As tourism is just starting to grow in Burma, Burma has not yet responded like its neighbours to Western tourists by offering them cheap massages.  So I didn’t get any massages while there.

I had almost forgotten about massages altogether until I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and was inundated by the number of spas out there.  You couldn’t pass a street corner without a flyer being shoved in your hands.  So, the junkie that I am, couldn’t resist the temptation and decided to have a massage.

The place I went to wasn’t the one I had originally intended on going to, but their prices were right and the lady who had given me the flyer was determined for me to say yes.

When I went into the room to receive the massage, I noticed that everyone in the room was a man.  Suddenly, I wondered if this was a “happy ending” type of place.

I laid down on the massage bed and this one lady in a short skirt started massaging my back.  It was the strangest “professional” massage that I have ever received.  She jumped onto the bed, straddled me and was sitting on my butt in order to massage my back.  My suspicions increased.

Then half way through the massage, she switched with another lady.  This second lady had been working on the guy that was beside me.  I have never had therapists switch in the middle of a session.  I am sure that the first girl that was working on me was the happy ending girl.

I was feeling quite uncomfortable during the massage as it wasn’t as professional as the ones that I had received in Thailand.  The massage itself was nothing spectacular.  I am sure that the guy beside was getting a happy ending.

Conclusion: I will wait until I return to Thailand to do anymore massages.  The only thing I liked about this massage was that they never asked me if I wanted a happy ending 🙂

Discovering Dalat with the Easyriders

In the south of Vietnam, there are the central highlands which are about 1500m above sea level.  This area of Vietnam can be a nice break from the humidity of the south.  The stop off town for exploring the central highlands is Dalat.  This was a quaint town that with everyday I spent there, I liked it more and more.

In Dalat, in the 90s, during a time of economic woe, a group of men who were educated with degrees but were having a hard time maintaining employment started up their own business, taking tourists on motorbikes out into the countryside.   Initially, this venture started when these men would come to the rescue of English and French speaking tourists as there were no locals who could communicate them.  Over time they were given the name, Easyriders.  Since then, the group was grown and the splintered off so that all throughout the south of Vietnam, you can find Easyrider tours.

Short of time, because I had to meet up with a friend in Hoi An, I was only able to do a one day tour with an original Easyrider, Hiep.  He was a teacher but prefers working in tourism.  He had a wealth of information to give.

On his tour, we went to the countryside which is absolutely gorgeous!  It was just beautiful.  Rolling hills and mountains, rice fields, pine trees and palm trees and waterfalls.  We went to see modern villages and he brought me to some homes of people to see what they do in the village to sustain their lives.  For example, I saw a man basket weaving while catching up on his soaps; a family who made rice vermicelli; a family who made rice wine; people cultivating coffee beans and a family who specialized in weasel coffee- this is a specialty coffee where weasels are fed the coffee beans and when the beans come out in their excrement, they use these beans for coffee.   (To all my friends who drink coffee, have you every tried this?)  What was nice about seeing these families was that it didn’t feel touristy.  There was no one trying to sell you souvenirs.  You were just observing their everyday life.

It was unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to do a longer tour.  With Easyriders you can travel from Dalat to the coast (Muine, Nha Trang or Hoi An) and see even more stunning scenery, go on elephant rides and do homestays in villages.

To anyone going to Vietnam, I would recommend Dalat and trying an Easyrider tour.  In Dalat, you can find one of the original Easyriders in the Peace Cafe. 🙂

Cambodia 7.5 Years Later

I first visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia in June 2004.  It was an exciting time then, as the country had recently opened itself up to tourism and people typically came into Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat and then left.  I knew when I visited that this was a country that was going to change rapidly and I wondered what it would look like int 20 years.  Well I had an opportunity to return 7.5 years later.  I only visited the capital as I was there to visit a friend.  I was impressed with the changes that I saw.

When I stayed there before, I slept in a hotel on the riverside.  So when I returned to visit the riverside, I was in awe.  There is now a promenade on the riverside that wasn’t there before.  The promenade is lined with palm trees and if you take the promenade out of context, it could be anywhere in Europe.  When I was here before, the riverside was just a muddy riverside with some vendors selling some food.  It was so muddy, that you wouldn’t even cross the road to walk on that side of the road.  On the otherside of the river, there were no buildings and now they have started to develop that side of the river and huge buildings are going up.

The biggest change is the development of the city.  There are shinier, bigger buildings all over the city.  I always remember Phnom Penh as having the craziest traffic ever.  They only had a handful of intersections with traffic lights.  For all other intersections- cars, motobikes, rickshaws and pedestrians would all just converge into the centre hoping that someone will eventually yeild to them so that they can make it through.  Now with better paved roads and more traffic lights, the chaotic traffic has been slightly pacified.  I didn’t see any rickshaws this time round as the tuk tuk has taken a bigger presence in the city.

When I was there before, most people left Cambodia because they ran out of cash.  There were no ATMs from which to draw money.  Now the ATMs are prevalent within in the city and you can even withdraw USD from them.

I had visited the south of Cambodia to see Sihanoukville which at that time had very few guesthouses and the beaches were vacant.  I remember swimming in the ocean with 2 other foreigners and the locals.  I did not return to the south, but have heard that this has been built up and some areas are lined with resorts while other areas are being fashioned after the beaches in Thailand.

One of the sights that I loved staring at especially on long bus trips was the children riding bikes in the country side.  They would be riding adult bikes but would be too small for them so they couldn’t reach the seat.  So they would stand on the pedals and ride the bike standing up.  They looked so absolutely cute controlling this bike that was too big for them.  When I was back on the bus in the country side, I looked and looked for these children, but noticed that now the children own small bikes so they can now sit on the seat.

It has been fascinating to be an observer in noticing the changes in a developing nation.  This has happened within 7.5 years.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens in another 7.5 years.  As Cambodia continues to develop, I hope that their culture is maintained and Khmer kindness continues to shine through 🙂

5 Things Unique to Burma

There were certain things that were seen in Burma that I haven’t seen anywhere else in my travels.  So I thought I would share them:

1.  Most of the women and some of the men wear this yellow paste on their face that comes from the bark of a tree.  When asked for what purpose they said to protect them from the sun and to make them look beautiful.

2.  In Burma, they drive on the right side of the road.  95% of their vehicles are right hand drives.   When on local transport, you have to step into the middle of the road to get onto the bus.

3.  The government regulates the pricing of sim cards and they are astronomically expensive.  Therefore, you hardly see anyone with a mobile phone.  All over the streets, you will see signs with phones on them and on a fold out table there will be a telephone in the street that you can use to make phone calls.  Not exactly a phone booth, but a phone table?

4.  When a Burmese person hands you anything, they hand it to you with their right hand and place their left hand under their elbow.  It’s a consistent gesture that you see everywhere, but I have never seen a whole society of people have a specific gesture for handing things to people.  I found it quite endearing.

5.  Burma is one of the safest countries in the world.  This risk of having your possessions stolen is very low.  Four of us shared a taxi from a bus station outside of Yangon into the downtown area which takes 45-60minutes.  In the trunk of the car was a huge cylinder so there wasn’t a lot of space for our backpacks.  So this driver stood 3 backpacks up in the trunk and therefore the lid of the trunk couldn’t close.  Without using any cords to hold down the lid, he drove us into town.  The whole ride, I wasn’t worried about how accessible our bags were.  But had this been South America… I know that when the taxi would stop at a red light, there would be a high chance that our bags would’ve disappeared!

🙂

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