Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Malapascua


We had ten days in the Philippines, myself and Nev had made an agreement that after he’d seen his wonder of the Banaue rice terraces, I could plan the rest of our time in the Philippines.  I decided upon trying to find a remote island paradise for a few days then maybe check out the famous ‘Chocolate Hills’.  Our lonely planet, which was a few years old, described an island of the Northern tip of Cebu, Malapascua, as ‘having long white unspoilt beaches, great food and a low–key approach to tourism ‘, in other words my dream island paradise.  There were warning signs though, it seems that the unspoilt paradise could have changed in the few years since our copy of the lonely planet was written.  New roads and major developments were in the pipeline but still to be approved by local government.  The photos of the guesthouse I chose and subsequently booked did not show any signs of the change with the resort seeming to have a private beach, it looked amazing. 

When we arrived in Cebu, we were initially going to get a bus to Maya, where you catch the boat to Malapascua.  I was a bit nervous about making the last boat so we haggled with the taxi driver until we got a decent price and then he drove us straight to Maya.  We had to wait until they had enough people to fill a boat before they would do the crossing, which gave us enough time to grab a quick bite to eat.

When we arrived on the island my heart sank, the local government had given the go ahead and the resorts had spread like wild fire.  There wasn’t a spare inch of beach without a hotel or beach hut on it.  I was incredibly disappointed.  I still had hope though of finding a remote spot with a private beach.  Our booking for the idyllic looking resort, White Sands, was for the next day, as they were fully booked for our arrival.  We eventually found somewhere within our budget then I went to check out White Sands.  Their private beach was no longer private, and had in fact been turned into a building sight, with the noise of hammering and drilling destroying the peaceful beach atmosphere.

I was saddened, after all our travelling we’d managed to find the Philippines equivalent of a half finished Benidorm.   I was so aggrieved that I suggested to Nev that we should only stay the one night then move onto somewhere else.  But after ten consecutive nights spending in different places, he point blank refused, which was fairly understandable. 

After the first night of disappointment I started to regain a bit of enthusiasm.  The beach was nice, and the food on the island was rather good too.  We checked out of our accommodation to move onto White Sands to find out they’d double booked us.  We eventually found accommodation which was attached to a diving resort.  Over lunch we talked about the possibility of moving onto the chocolate hills the next day.  In reality it was just way too much travelling, and we really were in dire need of a break.  I decided at this point that I might as well make some good come out of our bad situation and do my PADI open water scuba diving course.  I was planning on doing it in Thailand, but if I could do it in Malapascua it meant that I could go straight in the water when I arrived in the North Gulf without any further training.


I spoke with the diving instructors, they told me it was possible, I could start the next day and do a three day course, but it would be intense.  They weren’t wrong.  They gave me the text book I was to read just to have a flick over and help make up my mind.  We didn’t have A/C in our accommodation and it was roasting, too hot for me to sleep.  I was planning to get up early and read the first chapter and watch the video during breakfast.  But at 9 o’clock a night club just behind our hut started banging out cheesy dance tunes until it closed at 2am.  There was no way I was getting to sleep so I ended up reading the first chapter, it wasn’t easy to concentrate what with the noise coupled with the fact that I’d had a fair few beers beforehand.

The next few days of the course were amongst the most stressful and tiring of my life.  We had moved out of our noisy beach hut into a small hotel room but again with no A/C.  I had major struggle sleeping getting around 4 hours a night.  I’d then be up early every day to do diving exercises, get a short break for lunch, go for some dives, which I did really enjoy, have dinner and then do homework until about 9 or 10pm.  It certainly wasn’t a relaxing beach holiday, but it was worth it to get my diving qualification.  Nev was happy too, he had time to relax, read, and catch up with writing.

 

My instructor Valerie, a French Canadian, was excellent though.  She was bouncing with enthusiasm and a great instructor.  She was also good fun and was staying at the same resort along with her boyfriend, who was another instructor.  This gave the dive shop an intimate family atmosphere.  We would chat to them over lunch and dinner and they were good crack.  Because of this I have fond memories of Malapascua, even though the course was stressful and the island didn’t live up to my expectations. 

We left Malapascua for Cebu city where we were to catch our flight to Manila, then finally Bangkok.  Our flight departed on time with no hick ups along the way until we got to Bangkok Airport.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Banaue


Banaue is famous for its rice terraces, and was the reason why we were visiting the small town.  In itself the village is nothing to look at, but the surroundings are spectacular.  Thousands of rice terraces which are over 2000 years old line the mountains for as far as the eye can see.  It was fairly misty when we arrived in the morning and we weren’t able to see the terraces in all their glory as the mountain peaks were draped in fog. 

We checked into a guesthouse we’d picked from the lonely planet named the Banue View Inn.  It was on a hill with amazing views of the terraces and a good choice.  We had a short rest before lunch, after which we set about exploring.  It was great being in the mountains with the cool air, and in a small peaceful town.  The previous few months of heat and hectic city life was fairly wearing and an escape to the highland countryside was a welcome break.

After a shower and some lunch, we decided to take a walk up to the viewpoint.  We weren’t successful in finding the it but I don’t think there would have been much of a view anyway as we would have been shrouded in mist  We had to walk through a small village where every house kept livestock, mainly chickens and pigs, and the occasional territorial dog that would bark like crazy at us during our approach then run and hide as soon as we got close.  The main path seemed to pass straight through the local people’s houses and barns.  It felt a bit intrusive, but the local people didn’t seem to mind and were very friendly.

We eventually passed through the village and reached the first of the rice terraces.  The path continued along the top of the walled rice terraces snaking its way up the mountainside.  At some points the path was very narrow and we had to use both arms outstretched for balance, as if we were walking a tightrope.  If we’d slipped we’d have ended up either foot deep in the terrace encased in the wall we were walking on, or even worse in the terrace below where we would have fallen head first into the muddy water with a resounding soaking.     

We clambered around the rice terraces not knowing exactly where the viewpoint was until the visibility became poor with the fog and it was also starting to get a bit late.  We descended and went back to our guesthouse. 

I wasn’t overly enamoured with the town, apart from the rice terraces it really was nothing to look at.  The town consisted of a collection of cheaply constructed houses with corrugated iron roofs, dispersed with a handful of hotels and restaurants.  As with most of our destinations on our travels our time in Banaue was short.  I knew there were trekking opportunities in the area which sounded amazing and I wasn’t too keen on hanging around Banaue town.  After discussing with Nev we decided to book a three day trek for the next day.  

We woke up early, met with our guide and then got a Tricycle (a kind of Phillipines tuk tuk) up to the viewpoint.  It was a much clearer day and the terraces looked a lot more impressive when we could see the full range of them.   
We moved on from the view point, found the start of the trail, which is pretty high at around 2000m, then started the trek.  The first part of our trek was to be around a four hour walk through jungle like terrain until we would reach a small village called Pula.  The rainy season, or should I say cyclone season, had just past (the Philippines is subject to around 80 a year).  There were many fallen trees we had to scramble over, and a lot of the muddy trail had been washed away.  This meant that we had to take some minor detours climbing up or down muddy cliff faces with shear drops to a river seemingly miles below.  Along with having to jump from stepping stones to cross rivers, and cross waterfalls using bridges made out of the narrowest pieces of extremely slippery wood, it made for a fairly harrowing, but thrilling experience.



When we arrived at Pula I was quite surprised.  It’s pretty remote, the nearest road is a four hour walk and they don’t have electricity, but they had a big school with an attached concrete baskeball/football pitch.   Bizarrely, all the writing around the school was in English, including a list of the school rules.  Everybody was at church when we arrived.  We’d worked up a fair appetite after our walk, our guide managed to get one women to open the local shop for us to have some snacks.  Not only did she open the shop but she offered to cook us some food, pasta and a choice of the tinned meat that they had available.  We went for sardines in the end. 

It was a very interesting experience watching her prepare the food in an old fashioned wood fired stove, and just seeing how they lived without electricity, a commodity that we take for granted in the west.  The children were very curious with their visitors.  We were offered a kind of water melon as a starter along with salt which we were to smother the fruit with.  Our amateur peeling and smothering technique seemed to entertain the kids, receiving smiles and stifled giggles from our audience.

After lunch it was time to move onto Cambulo, another small village without electricity, where we were to stay the night.  It was a short two hour walk to Cambulo through rice terraces.  The views were absolutely breath taking, we were encircled by mountains and each mountain was sculpted with stepped terraces, some inconceivably high.  The people who work the upper terraces must have to walk for hours every day.  It’s a mesmerising sight, the rolling hills alone are spectacular, but add the chiselled beauty of the ancient 2000 year old terraces and you have an awe inspiring scene.      


After taking plenty of breaks to take in the view, we finally arrived at Cambulo.  Our guest house was nice, but basic.  I had to make do with a bucket of freezing water to wash myself.  Myself and Nev played a bit of scrabble until dinner, then after dinner we had some entertainment provided by the kids of the village.  They did a little bit of a song and dance routine, finishing up with a few of the boys getting dressed up in their traditional tribal gear and dancing around.  After they were finished, we were met with a chorus from the children of, ‘we want to hear your voice’.  After much persuasion I managed to get Nev to do a duet with me of ‘O Flower of Scotland’.  We sang it with patriotic gusto, and frankly, I think we scared the children a bit.  Probably for the best though as we didn’t get an encore.
Playing Scrabble with an Audience

The Local kids
The next day we had a short trek to Batad where we were to stay the night.  It was similar to the previous afternoon’s trek, both in the terrain, and in the breath taking beauty.  As we approached Batad one view point was particularly special.  We could see the spectacular walled rice terraces of Batad, with the village in the valley and other small houses dotted around the mountains.  It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and commanding views of the mountains beyond with layer upon layer of rice terraces.



Our guesthouse in Batad was another belter.  It was high up in the town with a restaurant with prime position of the terraces.  We had lunch and had a short rest before our afternoon activity of visiting the Tappia waterfall.

It’s a 40 minute trek downhill all the way to the falls, which makes for a steep climb back to Batad, but it was definitely worth it.  The falls are 30m high with a big pool for swimming at the bottom.  I stripped down to my swimming shorts and went straight in.  The water was fairly chilly, but nothing like some of the rivers I’ve experienced in Scotland.  I swam around for half an hour, which was about all I could manage.  It was exhausting, the torrent of water and the height of the falls gave the pool a very strong current, with big waves.  It was almost like swimming in a pool with a wave machine, but with freezing cold water.  

Our trek on the way back up was fairly demanding and after a cold shower, myself and Nev rewarded ourselves with some ice cold beers (Batad has recently installed electricity).

We had dinner, played some more scrabble and cards, and ended up having another early night.  It was great not having to use A/C and I slept a lot more soundly than I had been, although ear plugs were still required as the animals of the village woke early, and when they did they produced an almighty racket.

The next morning after breakfast I went down to the waterfall on my own for a morning dip.  It was very exhilarating and a perfect way to start your day.  It certainly wakes you up swimming in chilly waters with a pounding waterfall in front of you. 

We left for Banaue after my return.  It was a short one hour hike to the main road where we were met with our Tricycle driver who took us back to town.

 At this point I really should mention how great our guide was.  His family actually owned rice terraces, and he’s worked in the paddy fields all his life.  He’s also built new terraces from scratch, and has a wealth of knowledge about rice farming, which was handy as we had a lot of questions to ask him.  He was quietly spoken and a tad shy, but really friendly and helpful and opened up the more he got to know us.  All in all the trekking experience was fantastic, and this was partly due to our guides expertise and knowledge.

We were getting the night bus back to Manila that night so we checked into Banaue View Hotel again just for a few hours so we could dump our stuff, get changed and have a shower.  We were a bit smelly after trekking for three days without a proper wash.  We had dinner then went to the bus station.

The bus got in at 5am, and we had a connecting flight to Cebu at 9am, the timings worked out perfectly.  After getting a taxi to the airport we only had a couple of hours to kill before we got our flight.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Manila


Manila is a very discombobulated place.  It doesn’t really have a centre and doesn’t feel like a city but more a sprawling mass of connecting towns.  It’s not pretty, and feels slightly dangerous with armed security guards at every shop, fast food restaurant and ATM.  My introduction to the city certainly played up to its reputation.  I took my luggage from the taxi and put it on the ground.  I picked up my rucksack, and a little kid tried to make a grab for a painting in a wicker carrier I had bought in Combodia.  I put my foot on it and told him to get lost.  

A Jeepney in Manila

We were really shattered after our flight and checked into a Hotel to get some rest.  Our time was short in the Philippines and we didn’t really fancy hanging around Manila any longer than necessary, so we planned to get a night bus to Banaue in the evening.

We got an interesting Filipino lunch at a nearby restaurant complete with a live Mexican style band wearing cowboy hats and playing maracas.  They were working their way round the tables crooning away, we managed to gobble up our lunch before they made it round to us.


We didn’t do much the rest of the day partly down to the fact we were exhausted, and also as I don’t think there are many sights to see in Manila.

We arrived at the bus station a couple of hours early, and luckily managed to secure the last two seats on the bus to Banaue.  We put our bags on the bus then found a nearby bar/restaurant to have some dinner and a couple of beers before our journey.

The journey wasn’t too bad.  I managed to get a fairly decent kip, it probably helped that I was absolutely shattered from the previous travel day.  When I awoke I was in the wonderful highlands of North Luzon. 
Manila is a very discombobulated place.  It doesn’t really have a centre and doesn’t feel like a city but more a sprawling mass of connecting towns.  It’s not pretty, and feels slightly dangerous with armed security guards at every shop, fast food restaurant and ATM.  My introduction to the city certainly played up to its reputation.  I took my luggage from the taxi and put it on the ground.  I picked up my rucksack, and a little kid tried to make a grab for a painting in a wicker carrier I had bought in Combodia.  I put my foot on it and told him to get lost. 

We were really shattered after our flight and checked into a Hotel to get some rest.  Our time was short in the Philippines and we didn’t really fancy hanging around Manila any longer than necessary, so we planned to get a night bus to Banaue in the evening.

We got an interesting Filipino lunch at a nearby restaurant complete with a live Mexican style band wearing cowboy hats and playing maracas.  They were working their way round the tables crooning away, we managed to gobble up our lunch before they made it round to us.

We didn’t do much the rest of the day partly down to the fact we were exhausted, and also as I don’t think there are many sights to see in Manila.

We arrived at the bus station a couple of hours early, and luckily managed to secure the last two seats on the bus to Banaue.  We put our bags on the bus then found a nearby bar/restaurant to have some dinner and a couple of beers before our journey.

The journey wasn’t too bad.  I managed to get a fairly decent kip, it probably helped that I was absolutely shattered from the previous travel day.  When I awoke I was in the wonderful highlands of North Luzon. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hue & Saigon


After all the frantic activity in Hanoi and Halong Bay we were very tired and were looking forward to the overnight train to Hue to get a good night rest.  When we arrived in our carriage we met two English guys, Steve and Luke.  They were totally sound, we got chatting and started drinking, and our good night rest plans were thrown out the window.  We ended up getting rather inebriated with them, finishing off the night with some Cambodian whisky that Nev had fallen in love with, called the Grade of Baroso.  It didn’t taste good, but the peculiar name and the bizarre photo of an Italian dude with a world class trout pout on the bottle sticker was enough to capture Nev’s heart. 

Steve and Luke hadn’t booked any accommodation in Hue and decided to come along with us to our Hotel and see if there were any rooms available.  There were and after check in we decided to meet up for lunch.  We had a few beers with our lunch then went off to visit the Royal palace.  It wasn’t really anything to write home about, so I won’t go into detail.  Hue is a walled city, and the Royal Palace is like a citadel within a citadel.  It has a fascinating history but it just hasn’t been taken care of well, with overgrown gardens, and paint peeling of the buildings.  It’s in dire need of a refurbishment.

Myself and Nev at the Royal Palace

Luke and Steve on a Cycle Rickshaw
 After the Royal Palace we went back to the pub.  We played pool for hours, and ended up having a very long drawn out England vs. Scotland contest.  We were 8-2 up at one point until Steve and Luke made a whirlwind comeback beating us something like 8-11. 

The next day we woke up and went down for breakfast to be met with Jamie and Heather at reception.  We had a rather late breakfast and decided to meet up with them at dinner time.  It was the night before my birthday and we planned to have a big night out to celebrate.

Myself and Nev hired some bikes and went about exploring.  We visited some interesting temples, and cycled about some small towns and little back streets after we finally managed to get out of Hue.  We were having a good time until the con happened. 

We were getting hungry, we’d been cycling for hours and it was lunch time.  A guy on a motorbike, with his wife on the back, started talking to us as we were cycling.  He got us to stop cycling and started to have a proper chat.  He told us he was an English teacher, he was keen to practice his English and asked us if we wanted to join him for lunch at a local Vietnamese place.  He seemed trustworthy, he was with his wife, and we were very hungry, so we went for it. 

He took us to a great restaurant, the food was excellent, bbq style with seafood and beef.  They both seemed very nice and the lunch was going well.  The guy proceeded to get us rather drunk.  We were drinking beer from small glasses, every time he said cheers, which was about every 5 minutes, we were not only meant to clink our glasses together but to down the contents.

Myself and Nev have a few code words, we were slightly unsure how the arrangement of paying the bill was going to work out.  We started getting suspicious when they told us how much money they earned and asked us what our salary was.  So I asked Nev, in code, if we should offer to pay for the whole bill.  He agreed up to a certain amount.  When we had finished and were ready to go they said they would pay the bill as they would get the Vietnamese rate, then we could pay them back.  In our fairly tipsy state we agreed, we crucially never actually saw a copy of the bill.  When they told us the full amount it was at least double what we were expecting, clearly they were at it.  We were really disappointed, because they seemed nice, and what’s more we’d fallen for a scam.  When we asked how much we should pay, the couple said, “it’s up to you”.  But when we offered two thirds of the bill we could see the guy wasn’t happy.

The couple had invited us back to their house after the meal to meet their children, to have a shot on their piano, and drink some Vietnamese whisky.  We had agreed initially but obviously we were now having second thoughts.  On the way back, eventually we stopped them to tell them we weren’t interested.  On the news the guy was furious and demanded the rest of the cash for the meal.  We gave him it just to keep the peace, after which they sped off into the distance.

The Con Artists
It’s not nice falling for a con, but myself and Nev should have known better, we have travelled extensively.  We were kind off kicking ourselves afterwards, and it put us in a wee bit of a foul mood.  But, sometimes you have to take these risks when travelling and sometimes they pay off.  On this occasion though it restored my cynicism, and I’ll now be less open for offers from seemingly friendly strangers.  Och well, at least we had a good, albeit expensive meal out of it.

We met up with Jamie, Steve and Luke at reception.  Heather had decided to stay in, to let us have a boys night out.  We went out for dinner, then onto a few pubs then onto a club called Brown Eyes.  They had an amusing slogan on their flyers, ‘the bar doesn’t shut until the last person passes out’.  We were on our way when we arrived in Brown Eyes, then Steve started buying shots.  Unlike the rest of us, he was on a three week holiday and had no real budget.  After my third sambuca, everything from then on became a bit hazy.  I remember visiting another club with a crazy neon light display, I have flash backs of dancing enthusiastically on my own on the dance flower.  We then returned to Brown Eyes and lost Steve and Luke in the process.  Jamie went home around 2ish, and Nev hit the wall by 3 and was falling asleep at the bar, I told him he should go home.  I remained in the bar, playing pool, I vaguely remember swaying around not even being able to hit the cue ball in my drunken stupor. I'll let the photos do the talking.










I left to go back to the Hotel around 5ish I think.   I couldn’t find the Hotel for love nor money.  Hue can be quite confusing with a maze of back streets, it was especially confusing when I was steamboats.  I refused to get a motorbike taxi because I knew I was so close so I kept on walking around trying to find it.  I staggered around for 2 hours, knowing at every point I was only a 5 minute walk away.  I finally cracked and got somebody from another Hotel to write down the name and address in Vietnamese.  I jumped on a motor bike taxi and gave him the slip of paper with the name and address on it.  He didn’t have a Scooby where it was, even though he told me he did initially.  It took him nearly an hour to find the Hotel, after stopping to ask numerous people en-route. 

I finally got to the Hotel around 8am.  Once I got to my room I realised I’d lost my iPhone somewhere.  It was a bit of a downer, but not the end of the world, it was nearly out of contract and I was insured.  I certainly didn’t lose any sleep over it and was out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 I woke up at lunch time and went out for food with Nev.  Heather, Jamie, Steve and Luke were at reception, they were all off to Hoi An.  We said our goodbyes and got some lunch.  After lunch the hangover started to kick in, so I ended up going to bed.  I was awoken with a knock at the door around 4pm.  The girls at the Hotel had bought a birthday cake for me complete with a candle.  Unfortunately I was so hung over I couldn’t really express my gratitude, or look happy.  I just managed to muster enough energy to blow the candle out.  I was really touched though.  The Hotel staff were amazing!

Myself and Nev had a train to catch to Saigon that night.  I managed to get a good sleep on the train and woke up feeling fresh.  It was a long journey, around 22hrs, we finally arrived in Saigon in the late afternoon.

I’ve been to Saigon before and had a plan in place for what we should do for our few hours in the city.  There’s a great bar at the Sheraton, about 40 stories high, with amazing views of Saigon and 2 for 1 cocktails between 5-7pm.  We left our luggage at the train station and jumped in a Taxi straight to the Sheraton.  It wasn’t quite 5pm when we arrived so we wandered around for a while until the start of happy hour.  The cocktails were sublime, as was the view, we were perfectly positioned for sunset. 



We had some food then got another taxi to the airport.  Our flight to Manila was at the most anti social time, departing at 3am and arriving at 6am.  As you can imagine it was the cheapest option which is why we took it.  We hung around the airport until we could board the plane.  I managed to get about 30 minutes sleep on the flight arriving in Manila absolutely shattered.

Halong Bay


We didn’t have high hopes for our trip to Halong Bay due to our previous tour experiences, and also due to the fact that this tour in particular was very cheap.  It worked out at about £30 a day with transport, food and lodging included. 

We were picked up and then herded onto a packed minibus, the initial signs weren’t good.  But as soon as we got onto the boat things started to pick up.  There were about 15 people on our junk boat, the accommodation was great, as was the food, and to top it all off everybody on our boat were really sound.  We got on particularly well with one couple, Heather and Jamie.  Jamie was a Brummie, and Heather was a fellow Scot, from bonnie Clydebank.  They’d both been working and travelling around Australia for a few years and were have a travelling break before heading off for pastures new, New Zealand.

Halong bay is an awesome sight, and one of the most beautiful natural wonders I have ever seen.  There are more than 300 hundred incredible islands rising from the emerald waters of the gulf of Tonkin.  The limestone islands are of all shapes and sizes, some with rugged sheer cliffs, some jungle covered with smooth contours.  The magical landscape of hundreds of stunning islets is simply breathtaking.  


The other thing that made this tour experience special was the fact that although we were by no means the only boat in the water, there were scores more, the junk boats in themselves had a certain appeal.  The boats were pretty nice to look at, and made for a good photo when capturing the mystical landscape of Halong Bay in the background.  Even though there were hundreds of other people doing the same tour as us, our group consisted of only 15, and we had our own personal space.

 

After drifting through the spectacular gaggle of islands for a few hours we made our first stop at the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave consisting of three chambers.    There were stalactites and stalagmites in abundance, it was really impressive and very big.  The cave was illuminated with floor lighting which gave the perfect glow contributing to a wonderful murky atmosphere.  We didn’t hang around for too long due to the nature of our tour, and the other tour groups behind us.  After my last cave experience in Laos, where I was very unimpressed, this cave visit was a pleasant surprise.  My expectations weren’t high, but the sheer size of the cave and multitude of stalactites/gmites looking weirdly like natures own unfinished limestone sculptures, was a sight to see.


Our next stop was for a spot of kayaking.  It was a great way to explore Halong bay, getting up and close to the islets and caves.  We parked our Kayak on one small beach which led to a deep, dark cavern.  We scrambled across some particularly jagged sharp rocks barefoot to delve into the darkness.  Along with being barefoot we were also torchless and when the light diminished to the point of complete darkness we decided to return to our trusted vessel on the shore.  While paddling back we witnessed a stunning sunset, the sun looked like it was slowly sinking into the sea, with the magnificent backdrop that is Halong bay.    

When we got back to the boat it was twilight.  Tony, our guide, had planned our evening itinerary.  We were to go for a short swim around the boat, followed by dinner, then finish off the day with a spot of squid fishing. Our guide Tony, was a bit strange and slightly, only slightly, irritating.  One of his annoying attributes was to keep referring to himself in the third person.  For example, “Tony will take you to an amazing cave” often while pointing to himself with both thumbs inverted to make his reference clear. 

We got changed into our swim wear and started to launch ourselves of the boat.  I was a bit apprehensive at first, it was dark and I thought the water may have turned slightly cold.  After my first jump into the water I realised I needn’t have been concerned, the sea was lovely and warm and a great temperature for swimming.  We then swam around a bit, then climbed a ladder attached to the port side and repeated the experience until we got tired.

Dinner was another slap up feed, with some fantastic seafood.  We were kind of looking forward to the squid fishing, until we were presented with our tools.  We were given two short bamboo sticks with a couple of yards of line, a hook and no bait.  I personally think “Tony” was just having a laugh at our expense, there was no way we were going to catch any squid without any bait.  But by God did we try.  Even though we were unsuccessful it didn’t hinder our spirits.  It was a nice serene experience dipping the rods/sticks in and out of the water while chatting with Jamie and Heather.

The fishermen/women ventured indoors after our arms got tired.  We started playing my favourite card game “shithead”, although the rules vary drastically from region to region, and person to person.  I explained my rules, but the rules that Jamie and Heather were used to were completely different, this lead to a very confusing game, and we kind of gave up after a short while.

At the start of our travels Nev couldn’t help himself when somebody enquired about our travel plans, he would give them his well rehearsed Wonder’s mission spiel.  He’d become quite subdued about it in recent months partly due to the fact that I told him it got on my nerves slightly, he wouldn’t launch into it unless somebody would ask him specifically about why he was travelling.  We’d been talking with Jamie and Heather and the subject of natural world wonders was one of the main topics of conversation.  Halong Bay had recently been voted, in a worldwide vote, as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  As the subject was being discussed at length I brought up the subject of Nev’s travel plans.  Most people are fairly impressed on hearing of Nev’s three year travel plans, but Jamie was absolutely enthralled.  This was probably due to the fact that’d we’d been drinking a fair amount of vodka that Heather had smuggled onboard and kindly shared with us.  We ended up staying up until the wee small hours, while Nev went through every candidate on his world wonder list, upon Jamie’s request.  I must say Nev’s research, knowledge, and fairly weird obsession is impressive.  Even though I’ve heard about his wonder candidates umpteen times before, it’s still interesting to hear him list them off and explain the history and architecture of the buildings.

I woke up the next day with a stinking hangover and missed breakfast.  We set sail midmorning and I joined Nev, Jamie and Heather up on the main deck.  We were all feeling a bit rough and decided that the hair of the dog was definitely the best medicine to cure our hangovers.  After a few beers I felt a bit more normal and ready for our first stop, an island where we were to go for a short cycle and walk. 

Cycling is my thing, and I was looking forward to it.  When I’m on a bike, I like to cycle fast.  Cycling slow to me is kind of like walking on a tread mill, tedious and a bit frivolous.  As soon as we got our bikes, I put some pounding techno on my mp3 player and went for it.  I didn’t care that I was looking like a prat pounding away on my peddles while everybody was slowly meandering around taking in the scenery.  I was in the zone, and I was loving it.

I got to our destination a fair while before everybody else, I had time to cool off a bit and stop sweating.  We regrouped, had a wee snack and a short walk.  On the return leg the chain managed to come off my bike.  On a single speed I thought that this was a near impossibility, but I succeeded in doing it anyway.  It was a great effort trying to put it back on again and my hands were absolutely filthy afterwards.  I cycled back a lot slower after the chain incident not wanting a repeat occurrence. 

We then got back on the boat and set off for Monkey Island.  Upon arrival we’d realised we were in our own little tropical paradise.  There was a beautiful beach with a handful of beach huts, there were amazing views of Halong Bay, and the best thing was only our group were staying there…  apart from us.  There was a mistake when we made the booking and we were staying at a Hotel on nearby Cat Ba Island.  We had an ever so short stop at Monkey Island.  We had lunch followed by a paddle in the wonderfully warm and bright, clear turquoise sea before Tony started harrying us to leave.  I begged Tony to stay, but there was no room at the inn, and he wasn’t taking me up on my suggestion of sleeping in a hammock, for “safety reasons”.  It was very depressing saying goodbye to our new friends, and our recently discovered tropical paradise.

Jamie and Heather Relaxing on the Junk Boat
Cat Ba island wasn’t so bad, it just wasn’t Monkey Island.  There were another elderly couple who opted for the Hotel.  We joined them for dinner, and they had some good chat.  The guy turned out to be a retired Pilot, who’d worked in Nigeria on a rotational basis for several years in the 70’s.  We traded Nigeria tales, although he won the trade off, some of his stories were belters. 


After dinner we found a pool bar with the most difficult and warped pool tables I’ve ever played on, well apart from Nev’s old pool table in Market Street.  It was a curious bar inhabited solely by Vietnamese men, with a wall at the back of the bar functioning as a urinal.  We attempted to have several games, and also had a shot a traditional Vietnamese pipe.  It looks kind of like a bong, minus the water, and I thought it looked very suspicious, until I realised it was used only for tobacco.

The next morning we picked up the rest of the guys from Monkey Island and got our bus back to Hanoi.  Heather and Jamie decided to change their travel plans and meet us in Hue for a day before heading off for their next destination of Hoi An.  They’d already booked a Hotel for their return to Hanoi, while myself and Nev were getting the train that night.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hanoi


We arrived in Hanoi in the early evening feeling still slightly hung over and rather tired.  We met a Dutch couple, Raul and Charlotte in the taxi queue who fortunately were going to exactly the same Hotel as us.  They’d been to Hanoi before just one week past, they’d been in central Vietnam which was still suffering from flooding and decided to escape and fly to Laos.  The airport in Hanoi is very far away from the city so it was good to be able to split the bill by four, and they knew how much it should cost which was handy when the taxi driver inevitably tried to rip us off at the end of the journey.

We arrived at our Hotel of choice to find that it was fully booked.  We found another one without too much hassle, the owner was rather funny and charming in a cheeky kind of way.  As we were in a group we managed to get a discount which clinched the deal.  We then decided to go out for dinner with our new found Dutch friends.  

They were good crack and Raul happened to work for Thales, the same company I had worked for when I first graduated from University.  Although being exhausted from our big night out the previous night, and from hanging around at the airport for hours, after a few beers we perked up a bit.  We ended up staying up quite late trading travelling tales and sharing information about our native countries.

Hanoi is one fast paced city.  It has a population of nearly 4 million and has 2 million motorbikes.  By far the most common mode of transport is the scooter, and trying to cross the road can seem like a suicide mission at times.  Myself and Nev walked to the train station in the morning to try and book our train ticket from Hanoi to Hue.  We had to venture down small back streets with motorbikes whizzing by at break neck speeds, constantly beeping their horns.  It was frantic and very noisy, I wish I’d worn my earplugs.  We got to the train station to find it was closed until 2pm, so we returned to our Hotel empty handed.  We then spoke to the guy on the front desk about train tickets, he said that he could do it all for us.  The commission was minimal so we went for it.  We also booked our trip to Halong Bay for the next day.
 
We had some good street food for lunch after which I decided to return to our Hotel.  I needed to relax after our hectic morning, and was still feeling pretty tired from the last two nights of boozing. 

I’d been to Vietnam before and the culinary experience was fantastic.  My previous visit was with work, I’d been on expenses and money wasn’t an issue, but I still remember the upmarket restaurant food was still fairly cheap.  As Vietnam had previously been a French colony, there was a great fusion of Franco-Vietnamese food, and some good, cheap Vietnamese wine available, especially in the North where it was cooler. 

With these particulars, I managed to persuade Nev to go for a restaurant recommended by the lonely planet. The d├ęcor was great, it had an old colonial feel with dark wooden furniture and a moody candlelit ambience.  It was very busy, we managed to get seats in a prime viewing position on the balcony, where we watched the waiters and waitress’ run around placing orders and carrying food and drinks.  The experience was pretty cool, and the food was amazing.  

Busy Hanoi
We moved on to have a couple of night caps in a nearby bar.  We then went back to our Hotel and got a fairly early night as we were to be picked up at the crack of dawn the next day for our Halong Bay tour.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a rather strange city.  The city’s main purpose is to serve the hordes of tourists who come to visit the temples of Angkor.  It still manages to retain a small town feel, but certainly has a commercial aspect with “pub street” being at the heart of the tourist district.  It was good finally finding somewhere with cheap beer on tap, 50 cents for a schooner was the going rate.  We quickly slipped out of old man mode, almost enjoying the party atmosphere and had a fair few late nights. 

Of course we were in Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor too.  I bought a 3 day ticket whilst Nev opted for the 5 day long haul option.  The ticket offices open at 5pm, you can visit the temples the same day without your ticket being stamped effectively giving you a freebie sunset preview. 

We went straight for the biggie, Angkor Wat.  My expectations were very high for this one, maybe a bit too high.  The approach was very impressive, a massive moat encircles the temple, along with a rectangular outer wall.  There are gates on each side, but the main entrance, which we took, has a very long walkway decorated with interesting statues. 

The main thing that strikes you about Angkor Wat is the size of the temple, it’s huge.  It’s regularly touted as the largest religious building in the world.  It has three levels, with towers on the second and third stories.  Rising 31m above the 3rd level, 55m above the ground is the central tower, it is an imposing sight.

The other thing that’s unmistakable is how well preserved it is.  It was never abandoned to the elements and it shows.  Each story has an enclosed gallery with decorative flourishes and extensive bas-reliefs.  Some of the stone carvings are incredible, my favourites were the mesmeric asparas (heavenly nymphs).  There are over 3000 in Angkor Wat and every one of them is unique.


The whole spectacle is amazing, but on our first visit, I didn’t really appreciate it that much.  I think maybe my hopes were too high, and we were a bit tired to take it all in.  The other thing that didn’t count in its favour was the amount of scaffolding, with green tarpaulin flapping around in the wind on each side of the temple. 


The next day we opted for a guide and a tuk tuk to take us round the small circuit.  When we arrived at the gates of Angkor Thom I was instantly engrossed, the main gate has the famous Angkor faces at the top of the arched entrance.    Four faces point in each direction, they’re very well preserved and they look fantastically weird.  


Our first stop was Bayon, it was heaving with tourists but that wasn’t enough to put me off enjoying the profoundly bizarre experience.  An evidently eccentric and narcissistic god king built this temple.  Bayon is dominated by 54 gothic towers which are decorated with smiling Buddha faces, thought to bear more than a passing resemblance to the god king himself.   Everywhere you look faces glare down upon you, from multiple levels at every angle.  There’s a tribal feel to the place, it’s obvious the god king was wanting to convey his absolute power to his people by building it.  There is a certain magic to Bayon, I know I’ve written this a few times on my blog, but I’ve never seen anything remotely like this building before.  Weird doesn’t even come close, taking a step back and looking at all the faces staring at you is one strange spectacle.     



We went round a few more smaller temples before lunch with the next notable temple we visited being Ta Prohm.  It’s been left pretty much as it was found by the European explorers, overtaken by the power of the Jungle.  It looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, in fact it was used in one scene of the classic Tomb Raider film.  It feels organic, with vast root systems and huge trees growing right on the top of the temple walls.  The temple is exceptionally atmospheric with eerie shadows and green moss covered brickwork.  It was an awesome sight.


We finished off our day tour with a return visit to Angkor Wat.  I was more taken with it on my second visit, we could also climb to the top of the central tower, we arrived too late the previous day to do so.  The view looking down is rather special, you get a better impression of how massive the temple complex is.

Angkor Wat Central Tower
 On another day we decided upon visiting a temple that was further afield.  Because we liked Ta Prohm so much we opted for another overgrown temple called Beng Mealea.  Unlike Ta Prohm, where the jungle has effectively been pruned back, Beng Mealea is totally raw.  It was a bumpy journey to the temple, we frequently had to get off to avoid getting wet when driving through massive puddles.

As soon as we arrived we were approached by a female guide.  There isn’t an obvious route round the temple, and when she started to show us around we followed her.  It was really cool scrambling over temple bricks and big roots.  It was great to get involved with the temple, it felt like when I was a child hiking in woods and discovering a deserted run down old house.  I had the same level of excitement I had in my youth when exploring the ruined debris, thinking what it would have been like in its heyday and imagining people at worship.  Our guide was excellent, she didn’t speak much English but knew a perfect route to find the temples beauty spots.  It was pretty hard going, scrambling over the ancient brickwork and jumping over big boulders, we were even more impressed with her when she showed us she had a prosthetic leg. 



I had a couple of days break from temple visiting, I didn’t want to get temple fatigue.  On my final temple day we opted to cycle round.  This day ended up being my favourite.  It was a pleasant to be able to approach the temples slowly, taking in the scene, and stopping whenever you wanted to.  Having a few days rest helped, and I was eager to make the most out of my last day at Angkor.  We visited the big three again, Ta Prohm, Bayon and Angkor Wat.  Each one looked more even more fabulous.  We finished off the day by going on a fixed line hot air balloon for a view of Angkor Wat.  It’s a quick up and down, 20 minutes total trip time, but it was worth the hefty sum. The view of Angkor Wat was terrific, it was a wonderful opportunity to see the whole temple site at once, the giant moat, the temple walls and towers all at the same time. 

In Siem Reap we were a lot more active in the evenings than we had been.  Our friend Marley had a university friend, Al, who owned a bar in town called the Warehouse.  We met Al on our first night in Siem Reap, and we spent a fair few nights drinking in his fine establishment.  We also attended and came fourth in the Warehouse pub quiz.  It was a bit shit, with a lot of Scottish questions which should have been a major advantage to our team if there weren’t a bunch of other competing Scotsmen in the bar. 

We’d spend our nights playing the odd game of pool, smoking the occasional Sheesha and drinking into the wee small hours.  Our definitive travel plan was still to be ironed out, with a possible route through Laos and Vietnam involving some pretty horrendous sounding bus journeys.  It was on one of our drunken nights that I’d managed to persuade Nev to abandon his flight embargo and splash a bit of cash on a luxury that would make our onward travel plans much more convenient.  We booked flights to Luang Prabang in Laos the next morning.