Hello from Beijing!
The flight here was pretty horrible. I was more than ready for it to be over at hour nine. Fortunately we arrived in Beijing with only minimal turbulence. My first impression of Beijing was smog and heat. What they say about the pollution is true - this whole week has seemed cloudy, even on what was supposed to be a sunny day, due to smog.
My hostel is wonderful! It is located in one of the hutong districts which are wonderful to walk around and find little shops and restaurants.
My first night here I met two others staying in the hostel - Kate (England) and Heather (Canada) - who have been teaching in South Korea. They were in China for their summer vacations, and we spent the past few days seeing the sights. We took a boat up to the Summer Palace on our first full day here and accidentally walked the long way around the lake to the Palace. We rented a paddleboat and took it out into the lake to get great views of the Palace, then went back into the city proper and sought out Peking duck for dinner.
On Sunday we went to the train station to book our tickets onward (to Shanghai and Xi'an, respectively) and spent about 45 minutes just waiting for the ticket seller to come back to the window after she left for her break. Then we managed to navigate our way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We stopped for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall place near the duck restaurant that didn't have english or picture menus - we ordered by pointing at dishes the locals were eating that we thought looked good. The locals were amused. Then we wandered Tiananmen Square and entered the Forbidden City. We found an Australian volunteer, Matt, who offered to take us on an impromptu tour of the complex since his shift was ending. It turned out to be quite insightful and he gave us directions to the night market as well. Unfortunately, we were only able to see about half of the complex since the guards started shutting down one half of it while we were there - Matt told us it ususually means that someone important is coming for a visit when they do that. We left the palace and caught a taxi to the night market where we tried glazed fruit, fresh coconut milk and starfish - no scorpions or silkworm larvae for us.
On Monday we visited the Temple of Heaven, where Kate got roped into dancing with some of the locals. While at the temple we noticed a lot of Chinese tourists taking pictures of us rather than the temple and several of them asked if we would pose with them. I guess western tourists are as big an attraction as the sights themselves. Later, after taking a long drive around the city, we went to an acrobat show which was very impressive. I'll try to post some photos soon. We wandered the hutongs until we found a little restaurant with lamb skewers, Chinese beer and an amazing chicken and leek dish.
Yesterday was The Wall. We booked a tour through the same place that arranged the acrobatics show, and they picked us up at our hostel yesterday morning. There were about a dozen people in all going. It started out alright. We went to the Ming Tombs in the morning, which were a bit underwhelming, then to a jade factory for lunch. At that point we were okay, since we figured that the obligatory shopping part of the tour was over. We drove to the wall (at Mutianyu) where we were told that we would only have two hours there. Two hours! We were all a bit shocked at that. Especially when, on the way back, we stopped at a silk factory. We spent the same amount of time in shops as we did at the wall and got back to Beijing an hour and a half later than they had promised. Needless to say, we were a bit disappointed. But the wall was spectacular. Heather and I spent a bit of time trying to perfect our "jumping for joy on The Wall" photos and taking pictures of Bugs on the Wall (the latter was more Heather than me).
This morning we went to the Pearl Market to do some souvenir shopping. We got some great deals - not as good as the locals would get, but we didn't complain. Then we grabbed lunch and Kate and Heather left to catch their train to Xi'an. My day has been spent relaxing and doing laundry. Boring, yes, but necessary. Tomorrow is my last day in Beijing and then I catch a train to Shanghai. I'll try to post photos of Beijing soon.
Hello from Xi'an! I only just arrived here, so I thought I would let you know what I've been up to in Shanghai.
My first impressions of Shanghai: hot and crowded. It's just as hot as it was in Beijing and my train arrived during the morning rush hour so I was able to see just how many people are able to fit into a Shanghai subway car. My train from Beijing was fantastic - my options were a seat or a soft sleeper, so I opted for the latter even though I really couldn't afford it. I was on the Really Nice train - everything was new and sparkling and each person had their own television to watch (though it only had four channels and they were all in chinese!). My hostel was in a nice little area just north of the Bund and there were a lot of little restaurants about.
I managed to buy my train ticket to Xi'an (in chinese! though the ticket seller corrected every word that I said) and then walked the Bund with a Scottish girl, Sophie, and took in Pudong. There's a lot of construction going on in that area in preparation for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, so we had a bit of a time figuring out how to navigate the streets. We grabbed a late lunch/early dinner at a restaurant back by the hostel that didn't speak any english or have a picture menu, and that usually isn't a problem because we can just point to what others are eating but we went at an in-between time when there weren't many others there. So they handed us a Chinese cookbook and told us to point at the dishes we wanted and they would make them for us - which they did! It was fantastic!
The second day in Shanghai, Sophie and I went to the Shanghai Museum and spent a couple hours ooh-ing and awe-ing over 6000 year old sculptures, ceramics and bronzeware. It was incredible to see what China was doing during a time when Europe was still in its infancy. It started to downpour so we spent about an hour in the musuem shop before getting tired and dashing out to find a taxi. We grabbed some noodles for lunch then went to the old part of town to see a teahouse, some beautiful gardens and a bazaar. We refused to take a taxi back because they all refused to use the meter and wanted to charge us 50 RMB for the trip back when the ride to the bazaar was only 12 RMB! So we walked back along the Bund and Sophie left to catch a ferry.
Sunday was a lazy day - I've been getting over a cold so I just did errands and rested. Sophie came back on Monday morning and we caught a train to Hangzhou, a pretty little city southwest of Shanghai. We rented bikes and rode around West Lake, which is the main attraction, bartered for pearls and fans, admired the dragon boats on the lake, ate lunch and laughed at all the Chinese tourists who were trying to take pictures of us without being noticed. Sophie stayed in Hangzhou and I returned to Shanghai to prepare for the train journey to Xi'an. I spent yesterday shopping around for items to take with me on the 16-hour train ride. I managed to book a hard-sleeper this time, which was much more affordable, though the cars are very open so there is a lot of noise and it was difficult to sleep.
Looking forward to tomorrow! I'm going to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors!
I'm about to leave Xi'an for Chengdu, but before I leave I'll give you all a recap of what I've been doing here.
I've been out to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors, of course. I had booked a ticket as soon as I arrived and set out the next day with about a dozen other people from my hostel. Of course, we first had to visit the requisite gift shop (I hate that) and then we drove the 40 or so kilometers to the museum itself. There was a film playing in the van that gave some history, in a rather contradictory way (for example, expressing shock that the Qin army was able to defeat the other states of China when it was so ill-equipped, but then turning around and expressing wonder at the weapons that made the Qin army the best-equipped army in Asia). We also learned that the farmer who discovered the soldiers in the 1970s received only 10 RMB for the discovery - less than $2 - but he now does regular appearances at the museum and around China and is apparently well off. We arrived at the museum to find - a university campus. It wasn't really, but we all agreed that it felt like it. The parking lot is about 1km from the museum itself, and in between is all built up with shops and restaurants and fountains and the like. We walked through everything and went to see the bronze chariots first, then watched the film that is offered for tourists, and judging by the dust on the film it hasn't been cleaned since it was created. Then, finally, we saw Pit 1, which is the famous pit with the thousands of warriors (only 2000 on display). It was pretty incredible; it was definitely worth the trip out to Xi'an to see.
Other things that can be crossed off my list of things to do in Xi'an include: biking the city wall, seeing the Big Goose Pagoda, the Shaanxi Museum, the Bell and Drum Towers and browsing the Muslim Quarter. The last item was quite fun - it's Ramadan, currently, and Xi'an has quite a large Muslim population. I was in the Muslim Quarter at sundown when everyone came out to break their fasts, and it was quite a sight. The streets turn into a sort of festival with food stalls selling cold noodles, grilled lamb, dried fruit and nuts, sweet sticky rice, iced coffee and a sesame pastry thing. There are shops selling goods everywhere and lights and music and everyone was celebrating.
This wasn't a long entry, but it covered the basics. I'm not looking forward to my upcoming train journey (about 18 hours!), and my next post will be from Chengdu.
Hello from Chengdu!
Apparently, the must-see attraction in Sichuan province, and particularly when one is staying in Chengdu, is the pandas. The Panda Breeding and Research Base just outside of Chengdu is among the best in the world, and is one of the only places where tourists can see pandas in their natural habitat. And with a Panda Card it costs less than $5 to see them!
(By the way, I really love the hostel I'm staying at. It's called Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, for anyone who may be inclined to travel this way. They offer so many trips and tours and they have so many amenities - the owners are former backpackers, so I guess they know what to include - and the rooms are wonderful. The restaurant is fantastic when so many hostel restaurants aren't and, as the name implies, there is a garden - two actually, complete with roaming rabbits and guinea pigs and a fish pond. I think that if I don't leave here today I may never leave - I've been here just long enough to start to settle, and it's so easy to settle at a place like this!)
Anyway, several of the backpackers in my room (Lucy, Rachel, Sandi and Chatham) and I went on the half-day panda tour together. We left early to arrive at the base before feeding time. The park itself is beautiful - there are a variety of birds living on the base as well. We spent about four hours making our way through the base. The pandas are mostly allowed to roam the base, separated only from the tourist paths. They are enticed to come near the paths with large quantities of bamboo. After browsing the museum and seeing a film on the pandas, our group went back to Chengdu.
We all went our later that night to try a regional specialty - hot pot. Sichuan cooking is famous for its spices, and hot pot is supposed to be a classic dish. It's fun to try and is certainly meant to be eaten with a group. First, the servers bring out a large pot of broth mixed with spices. Then the pot is set into the table, which is designed just for this purpose. A burner is lit underneath the broth and it begins to boil. Then you throw in the ingredients of your choice (beef, fish, crispy intestine, duck's tongue, dumplings, vegetables, etc.) and allow them to cook through before fishing out pieces with your chopsticks. The cooked food is then dipped into a mixture of sesame oil, fresh herbs, garlic and whatever else you want to season it. Then enjoy! The dish certainly lives up to its name - it was incredibly spicy.
Lucy, Chatham and I also took in an opera performance at a local teahouse. If anyone is heading out to this area, I highly recommend it. Sichuan opera consists of sitting around in the teahouse drinking tea or beer, munching on peanuts, perhaps getting a massage or a haircut, while listening to opera and performances on traditional chinese instruments, comedy skits, watching shadow puppets, hand puppets, face-changing and fire-spitting. I'll post some videos soon - it's pretty incredible what some of them are able to do.
Sandi, Rachel, Romy and I spent a day at the Wenshu Temple. The gardens and buildings in the complex are incredible, and one can easily spend a whole day there. We browsed the shops for incense and fans and had lunch at the temple's vegetarian restaurant. We tried seweed soup, shredded "eel", sichuan eggplant, "eight delicacies over pumpkin", "pearl-like dumplings", spicy beancurd, rice and fresh fruit juice. The food was incredible and the amount of it was amazing. The total cost? Less than $4.50 per person.
The People's Park is another place to go if one is ever in Chengdu. While walking through the park we came across groups flying kites, ballroom dancing, singing opera, performances on instruments, tai chi, traditional dance... it seems like anything you might want to do can be found in the People's Park. Then, once you're done with your dancing or singing you can treat yourself at one of the teahouses. Chengdu is apparently well-known for its teahouses, so we made sure to sample the local fares while we were there.
That's all I have time for now. My train to Kunming leaves in two hours and I need to stock up on supplies before I go.
Hello from the City of Eternal Spring!
The weather so far has certainly backed up the name. Kunming is the first city I've been to in China that has had beautiful weather for more than one day at a time. It's a shame that I'm only here to arrange transport and to change the dates of my visa for Vietnam. Yes, I've decided to rearrange my South-East Asia trip. Now instead of flying from Hong Kong to Singapore and working my way up I've decided to scrap Hong Kong and go overland into Vietnam from China. But that means that I need to change the dates of my visa.
I arrived here on Sunday morning after 19 hours and 30 minutes on the train from Chengdu. Unfortunately, the task that was most urgent - the visa - couldn't be taken care of until the consulate opened the next day, so Sunday was a very lazy day as I couldn't even arrange my onward transportation without knowing how long it would take to change the visa.
On Monday my main task was to find the consulate and get to it shortly after it opened. This proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated. Although I had the address of the consulate and I knew to take the No. 3 bus to the train station then walk along Beijing Road, the difficulty lay in figuring out where along Beijing Road I was. One of the things I've noticed in China is the lack of street numbers. So I was on the right road, but I had no idea of how far I had to go or even whether I had passed the building. Eventually I caved and asked the doorman at a hotel, who pointed me... back into the hotel. Okay. Turns out I had passed by the proper entrance and ended up going in through the hotel entrance on the opposite side of the building. Well, I had found the consulate in any case, and they told me it would only take two days to make the changes. Good. I had expected to have to pay extra to expedite the process, but no need.
The rest of my time in Kunming was spent wandering around looking for temples and teahouses and markets until Wednesday afternoon when I could pick up my visa. I did pop into a McDonald's while I was here to compare the prices. A Big Mac is about $2.50 in China. So it's a little cheaper than at home, but not by too much. However, it is a relatively expensive meal in China. To go out for a meal to a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut is an Event because the prices are much higher than at local restaurants. I also took a look at the differences on the menu - instead of an apple pie one can have a pineapple and taro pie. Hmm.
I picked up my visa yesterday afternoon and booked a ticket to Dali for this morning. It's only 4-5 hours by bus from Kunming, so it's a nice change from the long train journeys I've had so far. Sorry for the rather boring update - Kunming isn't a place I came to for sightseeing, just for travel necessities.
Has anyone ever read Lost Horizon? In the book, a group of travellers end up stranded in a "mountain paradise" several months south-west of Peking and a couple hundred kilometers north of the town where the Chinese and the Tibetans trade their products. The book calls this place "Shangri-la", which some people think was taken from a buddhist word meaning paradise. The chinese town of Zhongdian decided, based on the description of Shangri-la in the book, that their town was the Shangri-la, so it was renamed. That's where I am now. But first I'll describe my time in Dali.
By the time I reached Kunming I was thoroughly sick of long, overnight train rides. So, instead of going directly to Lijiang as my plan had originally been, I reversed everything and went to Dali first. Dali is only a 4-5 hour bus ride from Kunming, so I arrived in the afternoon and took a taxi to my hostel. I checked in and found that I had the whole room to myself! Not bad for 40 rmb! Then I spend a lazy afternoon wandering around the town and taking pictures. The town itself is really beautiful. It's set between a mountain and a large lake, and the rivers flowing from the mountain to the lake have been directed by the locals into these beautiful water gardens throughout the town. The architecture is incredible: every building has the traditional tiled roofs and the whitewashed exterior walls are covered in paintings and carvings.
What else did I do in Dali? The local people are called the Bai, and I went on a cruise on the lake that included a three-course traditional Bai tea ceremony with music and dancing. The cruise stopped off at various islands where you could see the scenery and buy grilled fish and shrimp. An Austrian guy from my hostel, Gunther, and I went to Butterfly Springs, which were alright, and to another tea ceremony and the Three Pagodas. The Three Pagodas were erected by the locals to keep dragons away. They say that since they've never seen a dragon it must have worked! Other Chinese tourists kept stopping us to pay us compliments (he for being so tall, me for being so pale).
Then I went to Shangri-la. I've been trying to avoid sleeper buses so I made the 8-9 hour journey during the day. The scenery was very beautiful - we drove past the beginning of Tiger Leaping Gorge and through a twisty-turny mountain range. I'm convinced that if I die on this trip it will be due to Chinese traffic. Everyone drives so quickly, even around hairpin turns above a sheer 300 foot drop to the river below with no guard rail. They pass slower moving vehicles at ridiculous speeds at turns and areas where you can't see if there might be a truck coming along in the other lane to crush us. I guess this is why most people take the sleeper bus - so they won't be awake or aware of this.
Anyway, we eventually made it to Shangri-la without any problems. The owner of my hostel, Kevin, came to the bus station to pick me up and he brought me back to the hostel, pointing out how to get to the sights and the post office. I dropped my stuff off and went out searching for dinner with a Dutch couple I had met. We went into the Old Town and found the locals in the main square dancing! There were about 50 or so people in traditional dress dancing around in a circle in the square and many more tourists had joined in. We stopped and watched for a while, then walked on. We walked by what looked like a convenience store, but we were waved in for dinner. There was only enough room for about a dozen people or so, and several of those there were the owners and employees at another local cafe. We chatted with them over yak butter tea and were invited to the cafe the next day. On our way back to the hostel we decided to try joining the locals in their dance. It was harder than it looked!
The next day in Shangri-la I spent the morning at the post office packing up and sending home souvenirs and gifts and postcards. Then I walked back to the Old Town where I browsed the Tibetan shops and climbed to the monastery above the town. Shangri-la is right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and there is a lot of Tibetan culture here. The signs are all written in both chinese and tibetan script. It's a nice place to get a feel for Tibet without actually having to pay for everything to go to Tibet. At this point I wasn't feeling well, and since my symptoms exactly matched those of altitude sickness (and after all, I had just rapidly ascended to more than 3200 meters), I took it easy for a couple days.
I did manage to vist the local temple, Songzanlin, which was pretty incredible. It is usually the picture that people see of Shangri-la, but it's about 4 kilometers away from the town itself. I tried a couple local specialties - yak meat dumplings, or "mo-mo", and yak cheese fried in butter! I also rented a bike and went out to the grasslands to see grazing yaks and stuppas, but since my camera died when I was out there I'm afraid there will be no yak pictures for anyone!
Alright, so I left Shangri-la early in the morning for Lijiang. I arrived in Lijiang after about 4 hours and set off to find a hostel. This was the first place that I hadn't booked accomodation in advance - the town has 700 guesthouses and it's not the high season, I didn't think I'd have a problem. There were several places I had heard recommended by other travellers and I decided to just wander the Old Town until I found one of them. The first I found was Mama Naxi's and it had to be by some miracle because it's certainly not an easy place to find. Then I just wandered around the Old Town for the day.
It started to pour around 4:00 or so, so I ducked into a restaurant for a late lunch and to wait out the rain. I left when there was a gap in the rain but then I got lost trying to get back to the hostel. I blame the maps. There are maps of Old Town throughout it, but the compass is always changing and although the street you're on will be listed on the map, others might not. And Old Town is incredibly twisty and turny and it's very easy to get lost. So I ended up getting caught in another downpour, but a local woman who runs a wedding photography studio saw me and invited me in out of the rain. She didn't speak much english and I don't speak chinese, so we drank tea and looked through photography books until the rain stopped.
The next day I walked up along the river to Black Dragon Pool and the surrounding park. I wandered the park and ran into a german girl, Barinde, that I had met at the hostel the day before. We decided to hike up Elephant Hill together because we had heard that there are some great views from the top. Big mistake. The hill was all stairs and it seemed to go on forever. When we got to the top the view was nice but not worth the ordeal we had gone though, especially since clouds obstructed the tops of the surrounding mountains. We walked back down the hill with our legs trembling and went back to Old Town just as it started to rain (it seems to rain every day around the same time here). We ducked into a restaurant and enjoyed a nice, dry lunch then braved the rain to run back to the hostel (by this time I had mastered how to get back, but not how to get anywhere else). We waited for the rain to stop, then went out to browse the shops and drink pearl tea. We were invited into a tea shop for a tea ceremony where we were served tea that costs about $300 per brick - the most expensive tea by far that I've had here.
The following morning I was up early for Tiger Leaping Gorge. No, I didn't do the real 2-day trek - I wimped out and only did a 1-day trek along Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and down to the river. But it was still fantastic despite the girl that held everyone up on the way down to the river because she refused to let go of her boyfriend's hand. I chose to climb the rickety ladders back up to the road and was picked up at Tina's Guest House for a ride back to Lijiang. Again there were practically no guard rails and we went speeding around corners with no concern for whether there was another car coming. I was once again convinced that I would die.
My last day in Lijiang I rented a bike with a couple other girls to bike around town. Then I went back to the hostel and joined the chef as he went to the local market to buy the ingredients for the night's dinner. He kept handing me little things to try - quail eggs, grapes, roasted chestnuts and such. It was a lot of fun just wandering the market with all the locals. Tonight I take my first sleeper bus - I'm not looking forward to it. But it's the most convenient way to get to Kunming, where I will spend a day waiting for the train that will take me to Guilin.
This will be my last entry from China. After about six weeks here I'm finally moving on. I'm of mixed feelings about that - I've finally gotten used to China, but I'm excited to be seeing a new country!
Well, the sleeper bus to Kunming wasn't awful, but I had the benefit of having a lower bunk along the side of the bus which meant that no one was next to me. Also, no one on the bus seemed inclined to smoke, which was a plus. I've heard some stories from other travellers about being stuck in the larger bunk in the back of the bus, crowded in with four other people who are all smoking in the confined area. We arrived in Kunming at about 5:30 in the morning just down the street from Kunming Zhan, the main train station. I walked there and waited for the luggage station to open at 6:00 so I could drop off my things for the day. Then I just went around doing errands. It was a rainy day and I didn't really have the time to go see any of the sights that I had missed the first time I was in Kunming, so I just went to the post office, wandered around the neighborhood surrounding the train station and finished another book. Finally, I picked up my luggage and boarded the train to Guilin at about 6:15.
The train arrived in Guilin the next day at about 1:00. The shift in scenery and climate from Yunnan province to Guangxi province was pretty dramatic. It's almost tropical here, which is good preparation for Vietnam. There were a lot of touts outside the train station trying to fill buses to Yangshuo, my destination, so I was able to play them against each other and lower the price of a ticket by about one-third. Very few things in China are non-negotiable, and I've certainly had a lot of opportunities to practice haggling. I finally arrived in Yangshuo and checked in to a hostel, then took a look through the town.
The next day I took a minibus north to a little town and hopped onto a "bamboo raft" (really more like a PVC-pipe raft) that I had all to myself as I cruised down the Li River. This is a really beautiful area, and a lot of Chinese come here for the beautiful scenery. The 20 RMB note features a picture of the Li River on its back, commemorating its beauty. I saw plenty of other rafts, water buffalo, cormorant fishermen and, of course, the stunning karst peaks lining the river.
While here I also signed up for a cooking course! A representative from the cooking school met me at my hostel early the next morning and took me to the rest of the group. We walked over to the local farmer's market to browse through the selection of produce, freshwater creatures and the butchers' section. The Yangshuo farmer's market is rather infamous for the skinned dogs hanging for sale in the butchers' section, as well as the live dogs awaiting the same fate from cramped cages. There were, of course, plenty of other live animals - chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, hedgehogs, etc. but it's the dogs that most tourists come here to see. Then we took a bus to the cooking school itself. First we learned to create pork-stuffed steamed vegetables, which were placed in the steamer as we made the rest of the meal. The main reason I had signed up for this course was so I could learn to make one of my favorite Chinese dishes - braised eggplant. That was up next, and we were allowed to eat it as an appetizer to hold us over until lunch. Then we made beer-fish, which is a local specialty, chicken with cashews and water-spinach with garlic. Then we ate the food we had made. The verdict? Success! I made Chinese food that tasted exactly like what I've had in the restaurants here! And I came out of it with only one new scar from a grease splatter.
Another day was spent visiting the Longji Rice Terraces. I was up incredibly early to catch the bus that took me to the terraces up north of Guilin. The price I had paid covered transportation there and back and the entrance fee to the terraces. I was warned when I booked it that I would have to pay 12 kuai for the minibus that goes to the top of the terraces and back down, so I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for the guide that tried to convince us all to pay another 60 kuai to visit a local village. The local women have incredibly long hair that they keep pitch black by washing in the rice water, and the 60 kuai that the guide wanted us to pay would cover a show by these women and some tea. I refused to pay so much for this, especially when I hadn't been told about it in advance, and so did several others on the bus. The guide was very put out because it's here that she makes a hefty commission. Most of the bus went to the village while the few of us remaining stayed behind.
I walked around a village with a young American woman who was teaching in Japan and two older women from Australia, one of whom had been teaching in China for the past five years. Turns out, she knew a local woman and we all went to her restaurant for free tea and tangerines. Then the woman offered to give us a private showing of her hair, which she wasn't supposed to do because the official show just down the road brings in so much money. We agreed, and she unwound her hair from her head. It reached nearly to the ground and was incredibly heavy. She had cut it only twice in her life - once on her 18th birthday and once when it became too long - and those two bunches of hair were bound up and placed within her real hair. Then she brought out local ethnic costumes and made us all try them on! Because she was so kind and accommodating we each offered her 5 RMB "for the tea". So for 5 RMB we got tea, tangerines, a private showing and the opportunity to try on local dress. Those who did the official show only got the show and tea for 60 RMB. I think all would agree that I made the right choice. When the others came back we ran to meet them at the bus, then we changed to a minibus that took us up to the rice terraces. The terraces are pretty incredible. I would love to see them in the spring when the paddies fill up with water - it's apparently a very beautiful sight. The terraces were so vast and seemed to go on forever - and they're all planted and harvested by hand! I couldn't believe the amount of work that must go into it every year.
Today was my last day in Yangshuo. I wandered around and did some souvenir shopping before checking with the post office about a package from home that I've been waiting on. Since it has my guidebook and phrasebook for South-East Asia I couldn't leave Yangshuo until I had it. I checked with the hostel it was supposed to be sent to at 4:30 and they told me it still hadn't arrived but to check with the post office to see if perhaps it was being held up for some reason. So I went over 15 minutes before the post office closed and asked. They told me to check the parcel room out back. I went out and asked and - voila! It was there! I'm glad I checked today - otherwise I would have lost two days waiting until it was delivered on Monday! I ran over to the travel agency to book a bus ticket to Nanning for tomorrow morning, and all is settled. I go to Nanning tomorrow and from there I hope to buy a bus ticket to Hanoi for the next day. If I can get that ticket, tomorrow will be my last day in China. In any case, when I next write it will be from Vietnam!
Despite the typhoons that have been slamming Vietnam for the past week I've managed to have a pretty good time in Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had only planned to spend a couple days in Hanoi, then I wanted to do two or three days in Halong Bay, which I've heard is the thing to do in Vietnam. I spent the first day in Hanoi tracking down the post office, where I spent far more than I could afford, then spending half my daily budget on sushi and gourmet french ice cream. I'll say this about Hanoi: it has some fantastic restaurants, and the french influence means that the desserts, coffee and pastry are divine. Then I wandered around the city's main lake and discovered the meaning behind Lonely Planet's joke about custom-made "Hello, Motobike?" shirts being so popular. Tracked down the "Hanoi Hilton", which had little about the "American War" but a lot of anti-French propoganda (which I suppose makes sense - it was originally a French colonial prison used to house political prisoners from "Indochine") and a guillotine.
The next day involved tracking down lunch at a recommended restaurant in the Old Quarter (guava lassi - yum!), dodging motobikes all the while. Traffic in Hanoi is rather infamous - it wouldn't be so bad if it were all cars, it's the motobikes that make it so awful. It's one thing to cross four lanes of traffic when it's cars and buses coming toward you in those four lanes; it's another thing entirely to cross four lanes of traffic when it dozens and dozens of motobikes that you have to dodge. It's a lot of vehicles to keep track of when trying not to get hit.
After all this, I walked over to the Temple of Literature, which was a lovely little oasis from the rest of busy, noisy Hanoi. It was also a little taste of China, which seemed much more familiar to me at this point than French-colonial Vietnam. Then I walked over to the Ho Chi Minh complex to check out his Mausoleum and the sorrounding grounds. Ho is in Russia now for maintenance, as he is every September - December, so I couldn't see him but I did see military drills taking place outside his tomb and the lovely little One-Pillar Pagoda. I tried to then book a tour to Halong Bay for the next day but was told that due to more typhoons no boats were going out at the time. Sigh. ONe more day in Hanoi. It was a lazy day. I mailed postcards, ate pho and more french desserts and wandered around the Old Quarter.
Finally, after three days in Hanoi I was able to make the trip to Halong Bay. I was a bit iffy about doing the two day tour - the weather had been awful the whole week (five people died the Sunday past when one of the junk boats capsized during a sudden storm, but I was told that was mainly due to the height of the boat - mine would be a much safer size) and if it was going to be just as bad I would rather have done just a day trip and saved the money, but on the off-chance that the weather turn a turn for the better I wanted to spend more time there. I'm glad I did. The weather was fantastic! We took a bus from Hanoi and arrived at the harbor just past noon. It was bright and sunny and the water was perfectly calm. We took a motorboat out to our junk and after a welcome drink we put our things away in our cabins. There were only a dozen people on the boat, two of whom were only there for a day trip, so it was a nicely-sized group. The cabins were also far nicer than I had expected. We went back up for lunch - all of the meals included a lot of fresh seafood, very good - as we cruised out to the bay. We dropped anchor in the middle of a beautiful lagoon surrounded by the leafy, limestone peaks the bay is famous for. Then we left the boat to explore a vast cave network. After we sailed over to a beach and spent the late afternoon enjoying the South China Sea. We went back to the boat for dinner and then went to sleep as the boat softly bobbed along.
The next moring we were up early for breakfast and kayaking. It was wonderful - there was no guide with us, we were just given the kayaks, told what sights were in the area and told to be back before a certain time. We had a lot of freedom that you don't often find on tours - perhaps because there were only six of us at this point. Rachel, a woman I met at my hostel in Hanoi, and I took our kayak around the area where our boat was anchored and over through a cave network into a small lagoon enclosed on all sides by the limestone peaks - the only way in and our was through that small cave. We spent the rest of our available time swimming around the lagoon and enjoying the sun. Then we went back to the boat to sail back to the main harbor. Having now ben to Halong Bay I can say that everyone who says it is the must-see attraction of Vietnam is absolutely correct. I wish I could have spent a week there. At the harbor we were (eventually) greeted by our bus back to Hanoi. Now I'm just waiting around - I leave in about 45 minutes to take a sleeper bus to Hue, the former Imperial city of Vietnam.
Hello again from Vietnam!
So far I've managed to stay ahead of the rain. The weather has been beautiful for the past week and hopefully it will continue to stay so. For those of you who are keeping up to date on your tropical storms I will be far away from central Vietnam by the time Parma hits it again, and by then Parma will only be a tropical depression anyway. Where did my last entry leave off? Oh yes, just before I left for Hue.
Well, the Vietnamese sleeper bus is a pretty awful experience. Vietnamese drivers seemingly refuse to slow down for anything - they much prefer to swerve into oncoming traffic to pass a slower-moving vehicle. And they use the horn to warn everything within a twenty-mile radius that they are on the road, as though the large bus wasn't quite obvious enough. So, if one is unfortunate enough as I was to have the top bunk in the center aisle of the bus one will spend the night avoiding sleep because every swerve of the bus threatens to send one falling into the aisle. If one does manage to fall asleep despite this, one will then be woken up every ten minutes as the driver leans on the horn to alert the water buffalo in the road that the bus is coming - not that the water buffalo cares.
Anyway, after this thrilling experience I arrived in Hue, found a hotel and tracked down Indian food for lunch. I just wandered around the town on that first day. Hue isn't a very large town and one doesn't have to spend much time there to see its main sights. The town is located on the Perfume River and has some lovely parks and gardens. Its main attractions, however, are the imperial Citadel and the tombs of the Nguyen emperors that dot the surrounding countryside. I visited the Citadel, which served as the home of the emperors during their reign (from the early 1800s until 1945). Then I went to see a pagoda located in a pretty little garden overlooking the river. Then it was off to the tombs! I only had time to visit three of the emperor's tombs, so I chose the ones I had heard were the best. The first was the tomb of Minh Mang, which was quite simple but located within a stunning park. The second was the tomb of Khai Dinh, which was quite grand and seemed rather more like a French chateau than a Vietnamese tomb. The third was the tomb of Tu Duc, which I could have skipped because it paled in comparison to the other two. For dinner I went in to a little cafe. The owner turned out to also be a photographer whose photographs of Vietnam had been exhibited in Paris and Bologna. He proudly presented the photo album filled with those photos, and since he was selling copies for just over $1 I ended up buying several.
Two days in Hue was enough, so the next day I hopped on a bus to Hoi An. Only a few days before the town had been completely underwater. My hotel was set quite far back from the water, but the water level in the lobby had reached about 4 feet. There were a few buildings that were still abandonded and covered in sand, but the vast majority had already been swept out and cleaned. It was hard to believe that they had repaired all the damage so quickly, but I guess they must be used to it. One of Hoi An's specialties is custom-made clothing and shoes, so I decided to splurge on some items. I met a few girls who were doing a tour through Vietnam and Cambodia and tracked down some dinner with them. After dinner we wandered around the town, looking through shops and cafes. We stopped at one cafe for incredible desserts and met a couple of women who had taken a cooking class that day - the same class I was planning to take the next day.
My cooking class turned out to be wonderful. I signed up for the "deluxe" class and ended up being the only one who had done so - most signed up for the half-day course. So my "class" turned out to be a private lesson with the chef! We went to a local village to pick organic herbs that we would use in the recipes and stopped by a local's home for a drink. Then we went to the local market to pick up the rest of our supplies. Sadly, banana leaves and banana flowers could not be found - the typhoon had blown them all away. So we had to improvise with methods that I can actually use back home. We went back to the cooking school and started in on making pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup. I successfully made rice noodles and we made a fruit salad with marinated chicken and roasted rice paper to munch on. Then we finished the pho, made lemongrass shrimp and claypot fish with dill. Since I was the only one in the class we were able to cook at a much faster pace and ended up finishing at about the same time as the other class, so I was able to catch a boat back to the center of town with them.
The next day I went to My Son, the sight of some ancient Cham ruins. The bus dropped us off and we walked over rivers and through the forest to the ruins. I met an Israeli girl named Bali and we ended up exploring the ruins together. I'm glad I came here before going to Cambodia because most who had already been to Angkor Wat ended up being disappointed with My Son, though we agreed that the setting is quite beautiful. We went back to the entry point for ice cream to cool off, then caught the bus back to Hoi An. I picked up my clothes and shoes (less than two days for custom-made shoes? not bad) and wandered around town.
Today is my last day in Hoi An. I've just been walking around town taking pictures and wishing it would cool down. Tonight I have to catch another sleeper bus (joy) to Nha Trang and then another sleeper bus (double joy) to Saigon.
Hello again! The last time I wrote I was about to take the first of two sleeper buses to Saigon. I managed to snag a lower bunk against a wall, so it wasn't as bad as the last sleeper bus. We were dropped off in Nha Trang early the next morning where I then confirmed the sleeper bus for the next night. Grabbed some breakfast and wandered around the beach for a bit, then lounged around and read a book. In the afternoon I walked over to an ice cream shop that sold home-made waffles, and on the way I ran into a girl from Montreal that I had met in Hoi An! I keep running into people all over Asia; it must be because the backpacker-trail is so well established. After the waffles I walked back to the travel cafe for the bus pick-up and began the second part of the journey to Saigon.
We arrived the next morning to the sound of motos and car horns. I found a hotel to settle at and went out for breakfast with two Swedish girls and one Canadian. After breakfast we walked around Saigon, eventually ending up at the Presidential Palace (which we didn't go in - we just took pictures through the bars of the fence surrounding it for free) and then walked around some more to kill time until the War Remnants Museum opened in the afternoon. That was a very sobering museum - there was a lot about the horrible, lingering effects of Agent Orange and the dioxin gas that was used during the Vietnam War. Then we went back to the hotel to relax for a bit and dry off after the suddent downpour that hit us on our way back before going out in search of dinner.
The next day we all went to the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside of Saigon. It was probably the highlight of my time here. We first watched a video about the tunnels and the Vietcong guerillas before searching for the tunnels ourselves. Tourists are only allowed to enter the first level of three that exist - apparently tourists with heart disease and/or asthma have died in the second and third levels. But that level was enough. The entrances are hidden in the forest and they are so small it's no wonder GIs had such a hard time finding them. We climbed through one tunnel that was about 70 meters long - it was pitch black, we were all using cell phones and our cameras to try to light the passage. It was a very tight squeeze; I'm only 5'2", and I was forced to crawl at one point. The most exciting moment of that tunnel-adventure was the bat that got trapped in the tunnel with us. We then walked around the compound and saw how the guerillas managed to cook underground and use scrap from shells to build their own weapons. We tried another tunnel that was 120 meters long but had been expanded and lit up for tourists. Then we ate some tapioca and drank some tea before heading back to Saigon to search the night market for souvenirs.
Yesterday I left Saigon for a trip through the Mekong Delta. After several hours on a bus we arrived at our boat. We cruised up the Mekong to a local village to see the floating markets and their homes. We visited one family that makes local specialities where we tried coconut candy and snake wine (yes, I tried it!). Then it was back to the boat to cruise through the canals until we arrived at a restaurant for lunch. After lunch we biked around the countryside for a bit, then back to the boat for a transfer to a bus that would take us to Chau Doc. Once in Chau Doc, we checked in to our floating hotel on the river and settled in.
This morning we were up early for breakfast and for a trip to a fishing village. Then we came back to the hotel to wait for the boat that will take us to the Cambodian border. This time tomorrow I'll be in Cambodia!
Hello from Cambodia!
We left the floating hotel in the Mekong delta and sailed up the river. It was a beautiful day - bright and sunny, and the delta was so lush and green. We arrived at the border a couple hours later and dropped our passports off to complete the exit from Vietnam and to obtain the visa for Cambodia. After spending the last of our dong on drinks and snacks we boarded the boat that would take us the rest of the way up the Mekong. Two other girls from my tour were on the slow boat with me and we chatted and napped through the afternoon, occasionally getting up long enough to take photos of a picturesque riverside village or the distinctive architecture of the temples that are unique to this region. Finally we arrived at a dock where we left the boat and hopped on to a bus that took us the rest of the way to Phnom Penh. I followed the other two girls to their guesthouse and managed to snag a room for only $5 (with cable!). We tracked down a Korean barbecue joint for dinner and then a supermarket to stock up on essentials (don't drink the tap water!). One of the girls had a splitting headache, so we found a pharmacy to buy some painkillers as well.
The next day was hot and sunny so I slathered on suncreen before heading out (I've come to terms with the fact that I don't tan - I burn). I walked over to the National Museum to take in my fill of Angkor sculpture. The museum was housed in a beautiful building with a gorgeous garden in the interior courtyard. After lounging in the garden for a bit I walked along the river and admired the French-Colonial architecture before dropping into a place for lunch (and Khmer food does not deserve it's reputation - sure, it's more subtle than Thai and Vietnamese food, but it's delicious!). I killed time until the Royal Palace reopened in the afternoon by watching the monks drive by on motorbikes. The palace was stunning. Like most palaces in hot climates it had a garden with many fountains - it was a relief to stand under the spray and get away from the afternoon sun. After walking around the palace and its gardens and temples for a few hours I braved the heat to walk back to my guesthouse, where I lazily lounged around until hunger forced me to track down amok (fish in a coconut sauce with spices).
My last day in Phnom Penh was just as hot and humid. Faced with the prospect of visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleung (which would be difficult enough, given the content) in the heat, and the knowledge that I would be pushing myself in Siem Reap, I just took it easy for the day. The girls I had traveled to Cambodia with were still around so I visited them and found out that the one with the headache actually had dengue fever! At that moment I decided to start using insect repellant.
I left Phnom Penh the next morning for Siem Reap. The countryside of Cambodia is beautiful. Of course, we're in the end of the rainy season, so this is probably as green as it gets here. I arrived in Siem Reap in the afternoon and took a tuk-tuk to my guesthouse. I planned out the rest of my stay in Cambodia with the help of the staff.
My first full day in Siem Reap began bright and early - a British girl, Anna, and I rented a tuk-tuk and driver for the day to take us to the highlights of the Angkor temples. We purchased our passes then went straight for the big one - Angkor Wat. It was incredible. I don't know if it was the size of the temple or the fact that it was the rainy season - probably a combination of both - but there were a lot of moments when we found ourselves alone in the temple without even a tour guide's voice to break the stillness. Having moments alone in this vast, ancient temple was amazing. We could almost imagine what it would have been like for the French explorers who stumbled across it 200 years ago.
After Angkor Wat, Anna and I went back to our tuk-tuk and made the journey to Banteay Srei. Bantey Srei is a temple about 39 km north of Angkor Wat and we had to pay for the extra distance, but it was worth it. I believe Banteay Srei translates to "Citadel of Women" - the entire temple is covered with exquisite carvings, so intricate and delicate that it's believed they could only be created by the hands of a woman. It's also set within a moat and surrounded by trees and fields. There were only twelve or so other tourists at the temple with us, which made for a great temple experience! The three of us (Anna, myself and our driver) grabbed lunch and then made the trek back to the main temple circuit.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, famous for the trees that have grown within the temple (I believe this was the temple from Tomb Raider). The trees have been growing for centuries, and their root systems have forced their way between the stones, making for some amazing photos. After Ta Prohm, we went to Angkor Thom - the former capital city of the Angkor empire. There are several temples within the city, including Bayon, temple of a thousand faces. We walked around Bayon and several of the other temples nearby before making our way over to the Terrace of Elephants, where our driver was waiting to take us back to Siem Reap.
We asked him to drop us off at the Angkor Night Market where we grabbed a drink and indulged in a "fish massage" (you dip your feet into a pool filled with hundreds of little fish which eat the dead skin, leaving your feet nice and smooth - it takes some getting used to). Then we walked around and haggled over pillowcases and t-shirts before grabbing dinner. A sudden downpour left us stranded in the restaurant for another 20 minutes or so. We did some more haggling, then comandeered a tuk-tuk back to our guesthouse.
The next day Anna left for Bangkok and took a break from the temples to go take care of chores, such as laundry, and to wander around Siem Reap. The town itself is quite nice. I'm liking Cambodia - it's a nice change from Vietnam, where I couldn't walk one block without a dozen people trying to sell me something. It's not nearly as overbearing here, and the people are very kind. The next day I hired a driver to take me through the Grand Circuit. We started bright and early back at Ta Prohm, where I was hoping to take some pictures without so many tourists, but alas! the tour groups all decided to be there at the exact moment that I was. From there we spent the whole day making our way along the circuit. I can't even remember the names of all the temples I saw. Some of them were quite enjoyable, mainly because I was off the beaten-track so there were far fewer tourists there with me.
On my last day in Siem Reap my driver and I went back to the temples - but only for a half-day. I enjoy sleep too much to be enticed by a sunrise at the temples, and besides which it's been cloudy so there isn't even a sunrise to speak of, so we just left in the late morning. I wandered around Angkor Wat again and we drove around Angkor Thom. Then I hiked up Phnom Bakeng, which gives a wonderful view of the surrounding area. I could just barely see Angkor Wat from the top. Then we went back to Siem Reap where I booked a bus to Bangkok for the next morning. I leave in an hour for Thailand - let's hope it's not the scam bus.
Hello again! Sorry this entry took so long, I've been distracted by all the photos I've had to upload! Well, the bus from Siem Reap wasn't exactly the scam bus, but it certainly wasn't what we'd paid for. It was more of a chicken bus. Anyway, it brought us to the Thai border where we spent almost two hours waiting to clear immigration. There were separate lines for Thais and for foreigners and the foreigner line was out the door. The Thai line, on the other hand, never had more than 6 people in it. And the Thai line had two immigration officers to check passports - the foreigner line only had one, despite the vast difference in volume. After we had cleared immigration we took a minibus to a restaurant where we were forced to wait for another hour while they tracked down the large bus that would bring us to Bangkok. We didn't arrive in Bangkok until about 8:30 - very different from the 4:30 arrival I was told of when I bought the ticket. The bus just dropped us off on the side of the road in Bangkok - no one really knew where we were. But there were a few people I had met on the bus who had lived in Bangkok for a time and they seemed to have some idea, so I just followed them into the backpacker area around Th Khao San. I found a decent guesthouse with affordable rooms, grabbed some pad thai from a street stall and crashed.
My first day in Bangkok was mainly errands - boring stuff like 1) find Boots and buy more dramamine because otherwise you won't survive public transportation 2) buy more passport photos so you're not turned away at the Lao border 3) exchange baht for US dollars so you aren't ridiculously overcharged for your Lao visa 4) buy a bus ticket to Vientiane 5) buy an extra suitcase that you can leave at the guesthouse in Bangkok so you can drop all the extra crap you've been carrying with you since Vietnam, and so on. Fun day. Except I was lazy and didn't accomplish everything on my list. What can I say, it's really hot here, which isn't incentive to do much. So my errands actually took two days. I did also manage to book day tours out of the city, because I realized that if left to my own devices I would never make it to the places I wanted to see. Again, it's the heat.
So, I ended up spending my birthday on one of these day tours. We left early in the morning to drive out to the floating markets. We were brought up the canals to the market itself in a cramped little boat that seemed as though it was about to capsize every time it make a turn. Then we were left to our own devices while we wandered around the market, snacking on mangos and coconut ice cream. After a couple hours at the market we were loaded up onto different buses depending on where we were heading next. I was on the bus heading to Kanchanaburi and the Tiger Temple so we left and drove for a couple hours. We stopped to have lunch and I met Paul and Danni, a British couple who had quit their jobs to teach english in Thailand. They had arrived less than a week before and had spent most of their time in orientation, but had a few days to spend around Bangkok before heading off to their village. We continued driving until we arrived in Kanchanaburi and spent about an hour walking back and forth across the famous bridge over the River Kwai.
Then it was back onto the minibus for the Tiger Temple, which was the part I had been looking forward to all day! We arrived at the compound and walked, slowly (it was hot!), to the tiger enclosure. They were chained, but were given space to roam (and they may have been drugged). Danni, Paul and I got in line to have our pictures taken with the tigers. A staff member took our cameras and led us around to about 5 or 6 tigers, telling us to sit or crouch next to them and to touch them - firmly - on the back. I guess I wasn't touching one firmly enough because it ended up whacking me with its tail. I had thought the tigers would be softer but their fur felt very wiry, like a german shepherd's. Then we wandered around the enclosure for a while looking at the rest of the animals on display. Other than a few more tigers and a jaguar (leopard?), the animals are all allowed to roam freely through the compound. Then it was back onto the minibus for the 3-hour drive back to Bangkok. About an hour into this drive our minibus broke down on the highway! We had to get out to push the minibus out of the way, and fortunately the driver got it to start again. We made it back to Bangkok and I went out for pizza with Danni and Paul - I haven't had pizza in more than 4 months, leave it alone. And it was my birthday. Then we did more sightseeing along Khao San (bootleg DVDs of House and Dexter!).
The next day I went on another day tour to Ayutthaya, one of the ancient Thai capitals. We left early in the morning, again, and spent the day wandering around the remains of the old city. We saw several wats, several stuppas, two giant reclining Buddhas and dozens of sitting Buddhas. The main sites are set a ways apart from each other. It was difficult to get an idea of what the city had been like in its heyday. Nothing remained of the royal palace except foundation stones. We grabbed some coconuts to cool off, and those of us who weren't going on to the summer palace hopped on a minibus back to Bangkok. I sat next to an Argentinian woman and we had a very interesting discussion about the 2001 crisis in Argentina and the recession in the US.
My last day in Bangkok has been spent packing everything I don't need into an extra suitcase that I'm leaving here at the guesthouse while I go off to Laos and Chiang Mai, and wandering around aimlessly while trying not to spend any money. I'm off to go grab some cheap pad thai for dinner, and then in about an hour I catch a sleeper bus to Vientiane. I'm hoping it will be my last sleeper bus for this trip.
Hello from Laos!
The sleeper bus to Vientiane wasn't too awful, fortunately. It wasn't a proper sleeper bus with converted bunks but it was a comfortable coach bus that got us to the border bright and early. When we arrived at the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge most of us passed through without a hitch - one guy, however, had lost his departure card and held us up for about twenty minutes at the border. Then we drove over to the Lao side where we handed over passports, passport photos and either baht or dollars for our Lao visas (Note: if making this trip, carry US dollars - with the current exchange rate being what it is the Lao visa costs about $12 more if you pay in baht). No problems. Then a minivan arrived to take us to Vientiane, only about an hour away. I ended up trailing a Swedish guy who works in Bangkok; he was in Vientiane on a Thai visa run and knew where a good guesthouse was. Arrived at the guesthouse, picked out a room, and crashed. Sleeper buses never make for a good night's sleep, no matter how comfortable.
I spent the next few days in Vientiane lounging in gourmet coffee houses, french restaurants, parks and internet cafes (it was from Vientiane that I uploaded all those photos last week). Laos still has a few remnants of French colonialization, including gourmet coffee, baguettes and incredible french restaurants (steak au poivre for about $8!). It was a pretty lazy few days. So then I booked a bus to Luang Prabang. It took about 10 hours to make the drive from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. We took Route 13, which is apparently a major highway. It was more like the Kancamagus (if the Kancamagus was located in a tropical climate). Yup. The major Lao highway is like the Kancamagus.
Anyway, I managed to sleep for most of the ride and only woke up a few hours before we reached Luang Prabang. The entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site. It's very nicely situated along the Mekong river. There seems to be a temple on every street, nestled among the french-colonial buildings, and novice monks in their bright orange robes wander about between them. It's a very laid-back town, but also very easy to arrange trips to waterfalls, elephant camps, minority villages and caves. There's also a fantastic night market selling Lao textiles and handicrafts. Oh! And while I was here, I ran into the former Peace Corps volunteers that I had met on the bus to Bangkok from Siem Reap! Asia is a surprisingly small world, despite being such a large continent.
After spending a few days checking out temples, wandering along the river and the market, munching on baguettes and downing coffee, I'm on the move again. In a couple hours I'll be on a sleeper bus to the Thai border, and from there it's just another bus to get to Chiang Mai. The whole trip will take almost 24 hours, but it's much cheaper than flying and much faster than the slow boat up the river. It's kind of a shame - I really like Laos.
Well, the trip into Thailand wasn't as bad as it could have been. I guess that's saying something. At least the roads were sealed. Have I succeeded in frightening you all away from trips to Laos? Anyway, a tuk-tuk arrived at my guesthouse right on schedule to bring me to the Northern Bus Station. I arrived, changed my receipt into a bus ticket - presto! - loaded my bag onto the bus and tried to find the most comfortable place to sit. Technically, everyone is assigned a seat, but no one really abides by this in practice, especially when the bus is less than half-full. This is a blessing, as sleeper buses are just generally uncomfortable even when everyone has two seats to themselves to stretch out on.
As I mentioned, the road was sealed, but there were patches that were in desperate need of repair. I woke up every time we hit one of these patches because they caused my head to thunk against the window with enough force to bruise. The road was also very twisty-turny, which made the ride even more unpleasant for those unfortunate people on the bus who were inclinded toward motion-sickness. Add to all this, if you will, the three or four Lao men employed by the bus company to assist with loading luggage, making repairs, whatever might be needed, who decided to take advantage of the trip to call every single person they have ever known. They finally stopped chatting at around 3 am when a group of us who were sick of the noise ganged up on them and told them to stop! talking! it's 3 am! In addition, the air-con on the bus was broken. Now, I've found that this is quite common on South-East Asian buses, but this usually means that the air-con won't turn on. Not so on this bus. They couldn't turn it off. And it was on full-blast all night. The bus was freezing. We were all in agreement on this - it was freezing.
Finally, we arrived at the bus station outside of Huay Xai at about 6:30 am. We lumbered off the bus to thaw out and lumbered into tuk-tuks that were waiting to take us to the border. However, the border doesn't open until 8 am, so we all sat down for some breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Lao immigration was no problem, so long as you had your departure card and you hadn't overstayed your visa. Then we had to cross the Mekong to Thai immigration. This was more of a problem. Several of us had purchased tickets from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai and we were assured that every step of the journey was included in the price, from the buses to tuk-tuks to the ferry across the river. We explained this to the ticket sellers at the ferry dock, who immediately clammed up and pretended not to speak any english (I say "pretended" with certainty because as soon as they thought our backs were turned they went right back to conversing in english). So, much to our disgust, we were forced to pay for the ferry ticket. We crossed the Mekong and went through Thai immigration without any problems, then those of us with onward tickets caught a complimentary ride to the travel agency at which we could catch our minibus to Chiang Mai. The minibus left at around 10:30 am and we arrived in Chiang Mai at about 4:00 that afternoon. I wandered into the backpacker area and found a place to sleep before going out and tracking down dinner.
So, what have I been doing with my time in Chiang Mai? I took a Thai cooking class, which was something I had been looking forward to this entire trip. It was fantastic! Anyone heading to Chiang Mai, I highly recommend the cooking classes offered by Gap's House. We were driven out to a beautiful open-air kitchen in which to work and were given bound cookbooks with more than 30 recipes. The instructors were fantastic and the menu selection was excellent. With most of these courses, you only cook 5 dishes in a day; our course covered 9 dishes in one day.
I also did the "Flight of the Gibbon" - it's a 3 km zipline course through the rainforest canopy. I did the afternoon trip, so I was picked up at my guesthouse after noon, then we drove to the site in Mae Kompong. After signing a disclaimer we were outfitted with our gear and given a safety briefing. Then we drove to the beginning of the course and we were off! My group had 8 people, including myself, plus our two guides. We went platform to platform over the jungle. The course lasts about three hours, and is so much fun! Afterward, we went on a waterfall trek through the forest and had a late lunch in the village before heading back to Chiang Mai.
What else did I do? I did a trek into Doi Inthanon National Park, visiting Karen and Hmong hill tribes along the way. The trek was a good one - it didn't have that "human zoo" aspect that affects so many of the treks. We spoke with the village women (all the men are out tending to crops during the day; the women remain in the village and weave beautiful fabrics to sell at the markets) and then hiked through the park to a waterfall. After the waterfall we hiked to the edge of the park and hopped in the van to go to an elephant camp where we rode elephants through the jungle. It was pretty impressive how delicately these massive creatures moved. The elephant camp was alongside a river, so we then boarded bamboo rafts and cruised along for the rest of the day. I also went rafting yesterday, but this wasn't as sedate as the bamboo rafts. I was picked up from my guesthouse early yesterday morning and loaded into a van with the rest of the group. From Chiang Mai it was about two and a half hours to the point along the Mae Taeng river where we had lunch and then were given our equipment and a safety briefing. Then we boarded our rafts for the 10 km trip down the river. It was quite exciting - a few of the sections were grade 4, though we were told that as we get into the dry season these sections become more of a grade 3. There were two Brits in my raft, Caroline and Jish, as well as our skipper and myself. Ours was the last raft to leave, so we were also the last raft to attempt each sections of rapids. The other three rafts in our group would be waiting for us as we came hurtling down the rapids, laughing wildly. No one else laughed when careening over rocks and rapids, defying both gravity and the river in our attempts to stay upright and inside the raft - I wonder why.
Anyway, in the gaps between the activities listed above, I've wandered around the city's temples and markets, cursed the heat during the so-called "cool season", tried various fruits that look more like instruments of torture and sampled the amazing food. Tonight I head back to Bangkok, where I will have two days before I board a flight home!
This will be a short entry just detailing how the end of my jaunt through Asia went. The bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok itself was not too bad - as far as overnight buses go it was perfectly reasonable. The only problem was that it dropped us off by Khao San road at 5:00 am. Half asleep, we were all forced to track down accomodation. I had tried to reserve a room at the guesthouse where my suitcase was being stored but was told that they, like most of the guesthouses in that area, do not take reservations. And at 5:00 am during the high season, most of the guesthouses were full. I finally found a room and dropped my stuff and took a much-needed nap. Then I went back to my first guesthouse to pick up my suitcase and arrange transport to the airport the next night. I took the suitcase back and repacked, adding everything I had accumulated in Laos and Chiang Mai. Then I spent my day walking along the river, taking a trolley tour through downtown Bangkok, and admiring Wat Pho and the Grand Palace (all the touristy stuff I had not done my first time in Bangkok). The next day I treated myself to as much pad thai and fresh young coconuts as I wanted and relaxed at a day spa to prepare for the long journey home.
My van arrived and I loaded my luggage (all 70 kilos of it) into the back. Then it was off to the airport. There was no traffic so we arrived at Suvarnahbumi Airport with plenty of time to spare. I had to wait about an hour to check in for my flight, and then wandered around the terminal until my flight left at 1:20 am. I slept until we arrived in Beijing just as the sun was rising. Then I wandered around the Beijing airport and napped until my flight to New York at 12:30. Turns out I shouldn't have napped in Beijing because I could not sleep more than 30 minutes on the 13 1/2 hour flight to JFK. It was so boring! After an eternity we finally arrived at JFK. I was seated near the front of the plane so I was one of the first off. I flew through immigration and then had to wait 45 minutes for my bags - and after how quickly de-boarding and immigration went I though I was going to be out in no time! Then I made the mistake of declaring that I was carrying fruit so I was forced to wait another 30 minutes at customs. Finally I got through everything and my lovely brother, Chris, was waiting to drive me home! Other than one little problem with the parking lot ticket we got home with no problems, leaving me free to plan my next trip to Egypt!