A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodia to Hanoi

Temples and Motorbikes

sunny 25 °C


It's been a while since the last entry. We've been moving about a lot and it is not always easy to get time to use the internet.

When we left off last time we were busy dodging manic motorbikes in Saigon. We managed to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city for a few days by flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat.

Siem Reap is a bit of a strange place. It is a boom town due to tourism and they are building, it seems, hundreds of new hotels. It is really quite bizarre. They are even building on the killing fields in the area! I'm not sure I'd be happy staying there and I'm really quite shocked that they are using that land (it was very cheap apparently).

We booked a 3 day tour of Cambodia and Angkor Wat at our hotel in Saigon. We left our enormous backpacks in Saigon and travelled light for a change. We were picked up at the airport in Cambodia by a friendly guide and taken to our hotel. We had no idea what to expect of the hotel other than that it was supposed to be 3 stars. We drove into Siem Reap past all the new swanky hotels but didn't stop at any of them... oh well. Then we started going down some pretty dodgy looking back streets and I started to expect the worst. We turned into a side turning to our hotel which was....... Fantastic! It was a new hotel with very plush reception area and the staff were really polite. Jess then spotted the enormous swimming pool out the back. Hmmm, guess who didn't pack their swimming costumes. They were in our big bags back in Saigon - Dammit.

We had a really nice lunch in the hotel and then went to a silk factory where we saw silk being made from the breeding, growing and cultivating of the silk worms, through the extraction of the silk from the worms to the weaving of the cloth on looms. Fascinating. It's amazing how much work goes into producing silk. No wonder it's so pricey.

The guide took us to a market on the way back to the hotel where Jess bought, yes you've guessed it, a bikini. $5 well spent I reckon. Back to the hotel for a swim.....

Next day we went to Angkor Wat to see the temples. We had a really nice guide who explained all about the temples and the carvings on the walls. It was really worth getting the guide in my opinion, without him, you really are just looking at pictures carved on a wall but the guide brings them to life by describing the lifestyles and battles the carvings depict.

Our last day in Cambodia was spent by the pool at the hotel. A real luxury to smelly backpackers like us!

From Siem Reap, it was back to the motorcycle madness of Saigon for an evening before flying up to Hanoi for...more motorcycle madness. We stayed in an area called the Old Quarter. The streets in this area are really narrow (probably only 3 metres wide and packed with shops, hotels, tour shops and a new discovery of ours, the Bia Hoi. This translates as 'Draft Beer'. They are little shops with tiny plastic chairs outside and the serve draft beer (obviously). The beer comes from a keg with a hosepipe attached and costs 2000 dong per glass (about 8 pence). Great fun. We stayed their chatting to people for about 2 or 3 hours and the bill was 16000 dong for both of us. Not bad eh?

Next stop was Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a huge area of limestone karsts in the ocean off the east coast of Vietnam. The scenery is amazing there. We organised a boat tour through our hotel and were persuaded to get the 'deluxe' cabin by our hotel. 'No air conditioning in standard cabins, rooms not as nice' etc etc. Suckers. $79 each later, and on our boat, we quickly discovered that all the rooms were pretty much the same and basically we'd handed over our hard earned dosh for the standard tour anyway. Dammit (again)! The tour was actually really good though and we did enjoy it tremendously. We had a bit of a go at Kayaking in the sea but I think I'm too uncoordinated to do that sort of thing as I kept smacking Jess's oar. (which side is left again?). After a night on the boat, we headed back to the mainland picking up some people who'd been staying on one of the islands overnight. I think they'd had a good night as they came onto the boat at 9am with beers in hand and quickly got into our boats supply of beer and also got the Karaoke going. I was not quite ready for Karaoke at 10 in the morning but live and let live I say. It was very funny listening in on their conversations. Do I talk that much crap after a few beers? (stop sniggering at the back!). Back to Hanoi again (beep beep yeah). Next stop Sapa in north west Vietnam and another hard sleeper train.

Posted by paulandjes 00:32 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam - HCMC

Learning from your mistakes, the hard way.

sunny 27 °C

Oh dear, oh dear, it seems we always have a story to tell which is jolly good for you really otherwise you would get pretty bored....

As expected the sleeper bus from Yangshou to Guangsho was an experience. Close your eyes and imagine a standard bus inside there are three rows of bunks 3 beds high and 7 beds long, the gang ways are only just wide enough for you to walk though. The constuction is quite weird, your feet slide into a giant metal sock which is actually the raised pillow section of the person in front, their feet slide into a giant metal sock and so on. The beds are about 12 inches too small for the average westerner, definitely too thin and a bit scary to be honest. It was like sleeping in the luggage rack of a coach!! Paul and I were on the top bunks as expected the "best" beds are
reserved for the westerners, of course :0) Paul was right behind the driver and I was right behing Paul. I was really relieved to know that there were seatbelts so you could strap yourself to the bed, although I still have very weird half sleep dreams about me falling out of bed. I thought we had the "best" beds but once we were on the road the
driver made a few unplanned stops and probably another dozen people got on. There were people sleeping on the floor and sat on the front steps of the bus. The journey was expected to take 8 hours but it actually took 12. I could kiss my eye mask and ear plugs, they actually really helped. Paul on the other hand forgot to have his
handy and the poor fella hardly got a wink of sleep especially as when the driver was not talking loudly he was singing or whistling or beeping his horn, Paul also had the added bonus on having the front lights of the bus glaring at him.

We had a quick stop over in HK and again and although I had tried to prepare myself for the smallness of the rooms in Chungking Mansions it still came as a shock. We had an added bonus of a bath!! God knows how you could use it as a bath though - I am a yoga teacher and I would find it difficult to contort myself into it.

Our arrival in Saigon (HCMC) was ridiculous. We thought about getting some local currency but decided against it as you could get money from and ATM and we wouldn't incurr any charges. Anyway even if we couldn't get money at the airport we could get it when we arrived at HCMC as a driver was picking us up, right? Well... we looked and
waited and searched some more but there was definitely no one holding a sign with our hotel name or our name, hmmmm, maybe they got stuck in traffic??? I gave them a call but it was a really bad line and the person I spoke to did not speak very good english but the gist of it was that they have no booking for an airport pickup and we needed to get a taxi....right... only one small problem, we have no local currency!! Paul then rang and seemed to have better luck. The booking was made for the 6th and not the 5th - oops. No driver was booked and there was not one available - oops! However we could get a bus and tell the driver that the hotel would pay for the trip. OK
good, we found the bus got on and off we went. yay!! Hah! Not so easy.... The bus wanted us to pay so we waved the hotel name at her and tried to explain that the hotel would pay. Not interested, she waved money at us. OK, lets try a phone call to the hotel again. "We are on a bus and they want us to pay and we have no money"
"You are on bus?"
"Yes, you said get on a bus and you will pay"
"You are on a bus, they will want you to pay"
"We know but we told you we had no money"
"You on bus, Oh my God, OH MY GOD"
Errm, not exactly what we wanted to hear. The hotel tried to explain to the lady but she really wasn't interested and fair enough. She stopped the bus and we had to get out. Now I am thinking Oh my god. What plonkers we are, we have no money to get a taxi and no idea where we are. Not what I would call the perfect situation!! Apparently he said busie - which is a bus taxi - of course, how could we have made that mistake??? The hotel owner I think felt really sorry for us so said he would pick us up, we had to hand the phone over to some street
vendor so they could say where we were. We waited about 30 mins and I did feel a bit uncomfortable expecially when guys on motorbikes were hanging around but never really threatened but it was a great relief to see the hotel owner turn up.

HCMC has a lovely feel to it. Already, after only a few days we have noticed that the Vietnamese seem a lot more firendly and willing to help for no money, which was a real shock to us. I think we were starting to become a little Jaded after being in China for a month. Nice people but really tried to get as much money out of you as
possible. Here it it not like that as all. You do still bargain but the starting price is reasonable and you are not bargaining to the death. Once you ask the price in China they see that as the start of a business transaction but here you can ask and walk away if you want, and there is NO pressure.

We have seen a couple of funny sights since we have been here. You can buy anything you want on the streets of HCMC everything bootleg of course. I just picked up a Monet for me and a Van Gough for my sister!! Bootleg CD's are everywhere and they sell them on their cyclos (bikes with a trailer on the front). One entreprenure had
hooked up a stereo and speakers and ever some flashing lights to catch your attention. Paul was tickled by the guy who kept riding past on his bike with dried jellyfish hanging in rows from it. Why we wondered, but then we saw the bottle of sauce - hmmmm, tasty. We didn't notice his stock go down at all in the 2 hours we watched him
go by the pub we were sitting at. We wondered if he had had a good night there once after happy hour perhaps, when everyone was starting to feel a bit peckish. The Vietnamese kebab perhaps??

Crossing the roads here are madness. They even have tourist police at the really busy junctions that help you to cross the road. The LP warns you that you could end up like a fly on the windscreen if you are not careful. The tip is to do it slowly slowly, so the bikes can see you and go round you - they wont stop!! The mistake as a few
unfortunates have discovered is to run accross the road - splat!! One one of our first excursions we were a little timid so decided to shadow a local, good ideah huh? Well we thought so until she started to scream!! Bugger!!

Posted by paulandjes 19:54 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Yangshuo - China

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem!!!

sunny 35 °C

Escape from Tibet....

Before I tell you about my "problem" .... We finally managed to Escape from Tibet - hurrah!!! No, it wasn't all that bad, in fact the last day was the best. We went to Nam Tso Lake about 4 hours by bus so finally managed to get out of the city and into the countryside. It was so wonderful to see the snow capped mountains. We got up to 5190m above sea level so the air was definatley thinner and hiking up the hill was a bit of a strain but SOO worth it. It was beautiful. There were hundreds upon hundreds of colourful Tibetan prayer flags that were blowing in the wind with such force that all you could hear was the roar of the flags frantically flapping. It was definately a lot colder too and I was so glad that I had my Gortex jacket.

I am glad we went to Tibet but I was not sad that we left it. Some of the images and smells still haunt me. The smell of Yak butter of course, but even more haunting was the image of a family sitting on the pavement with a young boy no older than 3 really grubby, smoking a cigarette!! I guess they are naive to the ill effects. However I did read today that the smog effect of Beijing is equivalent to smoking 70 cigarettes a DAY and we were there for a week!!!

The first class flight back was really lovely. We waited in a really plush lounge and they had free snacks so I made sure I had plenty for Ron (later-Ron) - yes you can tell I am my mothers daughter :0) We had fully adjustable really comfortable chairs as we were sitting on the runway I could see Pauls hand twitching, so eager to fiddle with the buttons and no sooner had we levelled off after take off I could see him out of the corner of my eye slowling sinking down and becoming more horizonal by the second - I turned round and he had this huge grin on his face. "What?" he says as I roll my eyes at him. He is such a wally!!

We had a very brief stop in Chengdu to see the Pandas and the giant sitting buddha. Seeing the pandas was great. It is a breeding centre and not a zoo but we did read that very few - if any are released into the wild which is sad as there are less than 2000 in the wild!!! More money is spent on the reproduction of pandas in captivity than on saving their habitat. Very sad and made it feel a bit like a mass panda producing factory.

The sitting buddha was worth a visit. It was about 2 hours by bus so a fair way but it was a pretty impressive site. It is huge. The big toe is apparently big enough for 6 people to sit on!! I think it was about 72 metres high!! The smog in Chengdu was horrific though. When we arrived and were landing we actually thought it was really cold outside and that it was fog!! Um 28 degrees and fog?? Nope, you could tell as soon as you stepped off the plane and the sulphorous stench hits your nose that it was smog. When we were at the Giant Buddha you could not see accross the river to the city which was only about 100m away - nice!!

We booked our hotel in Yangshuo as it is the Chinese holiday week and Yangshuo is the holiday destination - we didn't realise this until it was too late to change - anyway we thought it safer to book. Beautiful villa style just out Yangshuo. Cough, cough!! Well..... we got dropped off the bus apparently at the bus stop (but we later found out it was about a kilometer away). We needed to get a taxi to the hotel but would you believe it there was not one taxi in site. Every where we have been we have been hounded by tens of people wanting us to get in there taxi but when we actually need one there is not one in site - typical!! So we throw on our backpacks (if you can throw on 17kgs) and get walking. It has to be the hottest day yet, hot and very humid. I dont usually sweat but I was dripping - oops ladies dont sweat - I was glowing - like a furnace(???) We walked for what seemed like a long time and I had really had enough!! I walked into this hotel and as luck has it the lady there spoke very good english and said she said she would call a taxi. 80Y it would cost!!! Stuff that, the most we had paid to date was 15Y. We had the number of the hotel where we had booked so we called them and after a long drawn out conversation in pidgeon English he picked us up.

The hotel was a fair way out but very beautiful. They said they would cook dinner which was lovely but very strange as the cook sat at the table very close to us watching the TV(very loudly) and also watching us eat. We actually realised that after paying for the first night that we didn't have enough money to pay for the meal so needed to get into town to get some cash. Errm, how exactly?? No buses and we know taxi's cost 80Y. Hmmm. Again after a long drawn out conversation and lots of arm waving we got a lift for 20Y - or so we thought. 20Y each way as it turned out. The driver would pick us back up at 10pm. It was so weird to have a kerfew and so lying in bed that night we wondered if we could throw the bags out over the wall of the place and use the bed sheets to leg it outta there!! The morning was hard. We decided that we could not stay there and as luck had it the hotel that we found the day before was brand spanking new, just opened that day, and they had space. We packed and tried to pay for dinner the night before but they wanted us to pay for the room for the next 4 nights. They kind of got the idea when Paul had enough and came down the stairs with our bags. I am so glad we ran into 'Cheery Hotel' on the first day. Funny how things work out.

Yangshuo is really lovely, it is still a large town about 130,000 people I think (more at the moment due to the holidays. It is set amongst huge limestone 'kasts' that really dominate the whole area. There are also plenty of rice paddies so the area really has the a country feel. Yangshuo is nestled between two rivers, the larger of the two being the Li river, the other the Yulong river. There are two main streets, West street or 'tourist' street is jam packed full of shop fronts selling Armani, Gucci, Prada (wink!) and bars,clubs and western restaurants. Paul likens it to a high street in Benidorm. Then there is Chinese street where you should go to eat as it is where all the Chinese go.

Now finally to my problem!!! It has taken me some time to admit but I really cant help myself..... I am a shopaholic!!! Really???? I hear my family cry. I know and it is worse here as you have the thrill of the bargaining. There are soo many shops and markets here. Do I need this stuff, No! Do I want this stuff? Yes. Can we afford it? probably not. But everything is just so sparkly and colourful and lovely. Damn, these markets. They are so wonderful. I have not bought anything from the markets for a few days now and I am already getting giddy and cold sweats. Stop it!!! Stop showing me beautiful sarongs and silks!!!!! :0)

Yangshuo is actually the best place in China for me - Paul would say Beijing for him but I just lovely the scenery here and we went for the most wonderful bike ride amongst the rice paddies and did a bamboo boat ride along the Yulong river, an amazing lunch at a farmers house and a great splash around in the mud at the local underground water cave. The Kasts here (huge rock formations jutting out of the ground) are amazing.

We have noticed a few weird things though - chinese couples seem to wear matching T shirts. Not shaped for man and woman but they both wear matching male size T shirts. It is quite funny though. Sod the engagement ring - here darlin' have the same T shirt as me - Gorgeous!!

We had a bit of a big night last night. We had a bit of a busy day so just wanted to chill for a bit so grabbed an ice cold beer and sat on the steps of a bridge watching the world go by. Little did we know that the world was watching us. The first incling I got that something was up was when I saw this huge camera lense glinting in the sun pointed in our direction. Taking a closer look around I noticed that this wasn't the only one and loads of other tourists were taking our picture!! Weird. I felt like going up to them and asking them for money (as this happens to us all the time). Later we went to a cheesy club as we had heard it was a bit of an experience and we were not to be disapointed. Paul and I were treated like celebrities, very strange. Everyone wanted to dance with us and when we did get up and dance they all clapped and whooped, joined hands and danced around us - a little peculiar!!

We are getting an overnight sleeper bus to Hong Kong tomorrow night which I am sure will be...interesting, then we are off to Vietnam - really looking forward to that

Posted by paulandjes 23:37 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Lhasa, Tibet

Yak, Yak and more Yak

sunny 25 °C


this is my first blog entry. Jess has been hassling me to do some and I've even had suggestions from friends that I put finger to keyboard so here goes....

Well, we have been in Tibet for four days now. It is a very different place to China. The scenery is spectacular with snow capped mountains and wonderful old Buddhist monestaries. Lhasa is a town which is kind of divided with a Chinese half and a Tibetan half with the Potala Palace, which is the palace of the Dalai Lama, in the middle of the two. We have spent our time in the Tibetan part of town.

The altitude makes a big difference to how you are. It makes me a bit more lazy than normal (if that is possible). It definately affected us both for the first day or so. We arrived from the airport by bus which dropped us in the middle of town. As we got off I was trying to work out where our hotel was using the little map in the lonely planet. I reckoned it was about 2km away. All the time I had a couple of rickshaw drivers 'helping' me over my shoulder and making sure I was aware that they were very capable of taking us to where we needed to go. I was feeling a little tired and hassled and kept saying no, no, no, NO! So they left us alone and picked on someone else. I regretted this action soon afterwards as we ended up hiking the 2km to the hotel with our full backpacks (Jess was less than impressed, with good cause, but soon got over it). We did find the hotel in the end after about an hour of exhausting yomping and struggling to breathe.

Lhasa is an interesting place. There are hundreds of little shops and stalls keen to sell you Tibetan 'antiques', tshirts etc. 'Hello, looky looky' is a constant sound you hear as you walk the streets. The stall holders are, however, very polite and friendly and shopping here is actually quite an interesting and pleasant pasttime (I don't believe I just said that).

On the first full day, we went to a Buddhist temple in the centre of Lhasa. It was very interesting and full of different gold buddhist statues. There is a constant line of locals queuing up to visit each chapel in the temple. A massive line of hundreds of people. The whole place was charged with emotion and feeling. It was an amazing experience to be amongst this. Outside the temple there are hundreds of locals prostrating themselves in front of the temple. This involves kneeling then sliding their hands along the ground untill they are lying flat on the floor with their hands in a prayer position above their heads, then standing and repeating the whole process. They can go on for hours! Half of them are 60 plus. It looks knackering to me. There is a walk around the outside of the temple (called a Kora) which is about 2km long. We've seen a dude doing this prostrating thing around the Kora all day!

The lonely planet is an invaluable help on our travels but obviously it can never be completely up to date. It told us that to get tickets to visit the Potala Palace (the dalai Lama's palace), you need to queue up at 5pm on the day before you want to visit. After we eventually found the ticket office which was at the far end of the palace, we found the ticket office closed. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English and Tibetan who told us that tickets go on sale at 9:30am and queues start at 7:30am for tickets for the following day. Damn! An early start for us the next day. We got to the ticket queue at 8am and the queue was already all the way down the side and looping back on itself. I held our place in line whilst Jess went off to find brekky (coffee and jammy biscuits...Yummy!). The shop near the ticket office was playing a nice Tibetan pop song. Quite catchy I thought. However, after about 10 minutes I realised they has the same song on a constant loop. We were in the queue for 2 1/2 hours! That song is now indelibly etched onto my brain (I'm singing it to myself whilst typing this. ooh yahy yay ooh yay yay...Ahhhh). Still, we got the tickets and the palace was interesting and definately worth the visit if not quite as spectacular as we expected. They are very strict on not allowing photos in the palace. Jess did sneak one, as she was lining it up, I reminded her to turn the flash off. Too late. FLASH. The flash went off and we legged it to the next room feeling a bit sheepish. Later on in another chapel, the guards went on red alert shouting and running. The target was a guy who they'd caught taking piccies. They held him there whilst they watched him delete every single picture he'd taken which seemed to be a lot as he was there for about 10 minutes.

The food in Tibet is, how can I put this, interesting. They say that being at high altitude means that you have less of an appetite. Maybe, but I reckon it's more to do with the local food. Everything seems to have Yak in it. Yak steaks, yak stirfry, yak curry, yak milk, yak butter, yak yogurt (yakgurt?), yak yak yak. There are lots of little shops by the side of the road selling yak meat. They get massive carcasses delivered at night, which they lay out on the pavement (bearing in mind that the Chinese and Tibetans spend all day it seems hacking their lungs up and spitting it onto the pavement!), then drag them into the shops and start attacking them with massive axes and cleavers until they have huge chunks of yak meat which they hang out for the next day. The smell is also 'interesting'. They season the meat with rosemary and burn incense in the shops but you definately know when you are approaching a yak meat shop. Time to close the nose off and breath through the mouth! near our hotel there is a row of about 6 or 7 yak meat shops in a row. It takes a minute or so to mentally prepare yourself for the closed nose dash past them. In the middle of this row of shops is a little bakery which appears to sell some nice cakes and stuff, but there is no chance that i'd be able to stop and buy anything from there. (the cake probably has yak in it anyway???)

We have not had a great deal of luck with restaurants here. There is a different attitude to service here. It is common for one or two dishes you order to not turn up until you go and ask for them again. Some of the stuff that does arrive is, err, not quite what you expected. Still, it is all part of the experience of new places and we do have a bit of a giggle about the whole thing.

When we arrived in Lhasa, we did not have a flight organised back out and weren't even sure how long we were staying. Once we had decided we were going to fly to Chengdu (our next destination) on 26th, we went to ask about flights. 'no flights untill 29th' we were told. Eeek. An extra 3 days in Yak paradise. I hurried straight to a computer and desperately seached for flights earlier. We had to book 1st class tickets (oooh hoighty toighty I hear you say) which cost us an extra au$100 per ticket (about 40 pounds). Oh well, another travel lesson learnt. Always make sure you can get away from somewhere when you need to.

Anyway, we've got another day in Lhasa before we head off to Chengdu and more edible food?

Posted by paulandjes 19:43 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

The streets of China

I love people watching, apart from shopping it is one of my most favourite things to do. The people here are so interesting. So what can I tell you? Well firstly it is SOO busy. Not surprisingly really. The air is pretty polluted and we are having trouble breathing. Paul especially has had a bad cough. I have had ears that squeak every time I blow my nose and really itchy eyes. My neti pot has been my saviour and it has really helped to flush out my sinuses. anyway, back to the streets of China. The kids here are so cute, Paul has even said so (aye, aye, is that man getting broody???) It is wierd to see that kids don't wear nappies here, they were these cute little trousers that have slits it them and when they need to go I guess they go, not the most hygienic of things but I guess it works?? The older people here have such interesting faces, deep creases that I am sure tell a lifetime of stories. Men just sit crouched in the middle of the street. Doing what? nothing!! Just hanging out with there arms resting on there knees, looking like the most compacting being on the planet, just watching the world go by. People sleep in the streets. Not homeless people, just people having a rest. They sit propped up against buildings, steps and in the back of their little trikes. Trikes and bikes, Oh my god! There are just so many of them and sometimes it seems like there is a competition so see which family can fit the most members on their bike - hilarious. There are many people sweeping the streets with home made brooms. The brooms have hundreds of pieces of tied plastic to them so are colourful as well as practical.

The traffic is chaotic, in an organised way if that makes sense?? There seem to be not very many rules and crossing the road is like taking your life into your own hands each time. It is like a game of chicken with the hundreds of bikes that always seem to have right of way - who dares wins. It doesn't even matter if you stare them in the eye or if you have the green man showing on the crossing or if the traffic guard has his red flag waving.

The road side street vendors are hilarious. Some are just straight forward selling melon on kebab sticks but others have ingeniously engineered troughs attached to the side of their bikes that they fill with hot coals and bbq meat - not that I am game I have to admit.

Paul and I are getting used to being a freak show. Parents often point at us at their children which usually causes a few giggles from the kids, the more adventurous children often call out "hillloooo" and then shy away when we reply. I do get stared at a lot and I don't mind. I know there is no harm in it and I look so different from them and I know they are just inquisitive. I have been told that India is worse, so I guess it is just practice - for us to get used to it.

I love people and I love the streets of China.

Posted by paulandjes 04:56 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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