Making full use of the free internet at my lodgings in sleepy little Hoi An; Hop Yen Hotel. Bit of a big one last night so chilled night tonight, plus I'm up early doors for a flight down to Nha Trang. Liverpool V Arsenal KO's at 11pm later though so could put the early night in jeopardy!
This is how SE Asia has been going so far…
Sweet flight in with Jet from Mumbai, arriving 23rd Nov. Hooked up with Lacey who'd come in from Africa via Cambodia. Great to hook up with a mate from home, catch up and swap stories. Think we might have had a couple of beers too if I remember rightly. Went to the Vietnam embassy second day there, on the Tues, then waited till the Fri for our 'Nam visas to be issued.
In the intervening time;
- Went to Lumpinee Boxing Stadium for a night of back-to-back Muay Thai Boxing at the premier venue in Thailand. Saw some kiddy get knocked out savagely by repeated knees to the head. The atmosphere there's pretty crazy, with the crowd going nuts.
- Hooked up with Melissa, a Canadian girl I met in Nepal who teaches in Bangkok, and was my absolute saviour by meeting me with my bank cards after Mum had posted them to her. Reunited with the bank cards at last!!! (although it was probably safer when I was without them, in hindsight).
- Rode the futuristic sky-train, a bit reminiscent of Batman 'Dark Knight'.
- Got ******ered on Khoa San road. Quite a lot. Ate some deep fried grasshoppers, worms, beetles etc during this period also.
- Met John King, an old mate/bandmate from school, quite randomly, battered in a pub somewhere around 3am ish.
- Went on a day tour of a floating market (where you buzz around canals/waterways doing your shopping on boats) and the bridge over the river Kwai.
- Shopped around for a replacement camera after my 'underwater' one didn't much take to the Goan sea.
Found Bangkok such a culture shock after India. Clean, modern, opulent. Was nice to enjoy some home comforts, the food hall in MBK shopping mall being particularly special!
Got the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Cleaner and more orderly than Indian sleepers, but somehow I missed the Indian chaos a bit… perhaps it's because you have more people selling food on Indian trains! And masala chai, of course. And they don't turn the lights out on Thai sleepers, what's that all about?!
Checked in to 'Julie' guesthouse on another traveler's recommendation. Crap name, but the place didn't disappoint. Great friendly staff, chilled laid back furnishings, good music, free pool table and an honesty drinks system, whereby you help yourself to beers etc and make a note of what you've had in a book you're allotted. Makes for a nice atmos.
Arranged a 3 day / 2 night trek, which we set off on on the morning of 29th Nov. There's a lot of touristy, large group, low adventure tours run from Chiang Mai, but we didn't much care for washing some elephants or building a bamboo raft, so instead we hired a guide and set off into the hills just the three of us. Didn't see another tourist till the afternoon of the third day, really got to see some of the real, traditional, Northern Thailand - great after the commercial trashiness of Bangkok. The local food throughout was awesome too - prepared in tiny huts by the locals but looking and tasting as though it had come from a michelin starred restaurant. Scenery and terrain varied from rainforest to jungle….to woodland where you could have almost been at home. The scenery and trekking was good, but it did make me realize just how good Nepal is for trekking, thought about my time there quite a lot. Highlight of the Chiang Mai trek was probably the village stay on the second night, out in the hills somewhere in a remote village, sitting around a fire with the family after dinner under a full moon.
Returned to Chiang Mai on the 1st Dec, had a thai massage after the trek, much to Lacey's amusement, and the massagers shock, I started stripping down to my boxers… didn't know these thai massages are clothes-on affairs! After that it was dinner and pool and Julies, then a night out. Following day I paid the price, in full, for not knowing that Chang beer is 6.4%, then in the evening we got the overnight sleeper bus to Vietiane, Lao, the smallest capital in Asia.
Overnight stay here, chilled out, buzzed around on some old-school upright, crossbar down bicycles, pretty good way to get around actually, good fun. Checked out a few temples and the like, more pool and a few beers in the evening but not much really going on. Following morn went to an open-air swimming pool and did a few lengths, good to get a bit of exercise. Then early avo it was another bus bound for Vang Vieng…
Only 2 nights here unfortunately, but they were pretty bloody awesome. And we didn't even do much the first night…arrived early evening, hunted out some accommodation and wandered round town, checking out a few cheap clothes shops and working out a likely bar crawl route for the following day (not that we would be in any state to remember/follow any pre-formulated plan, as it turned out…). Woke up the next day, 4th Dec, had an awesome (read: big, greasy) breakfast across the street from our hotel, in a café overlooking the river. Felt a bit ropey, sniffles and the like, but figured beers would sort me out.
So Vang Vieng's all about tubing, hiring a big rubber ring, getting a tuk-tuk up river and floating down the river, calling in at riverside bars on the way by grabbing hold of a rope bar-staff chuck out to you. Arrived at the first bar at about midday and carried on from there, drinking, partying, raving, jumping off towers into the river, it was pretty immense. Passed out a couple of times too, once in the ring on the river and once in a restaurant, but I woke up and powered through. Met a local girl from Vietiane in the evening which capped a wicked day.
Left early the following day - 5th Dec - on a 6 hour minibus up to Luang Prabang. Feeling a bit delicate. Beautiful drive, lush green forest, rolling mountains, clear blue sky. Nicest journey of my travels so far, beating the Kathmandu to Pokhara bus trip into second place. Great tonic for a hangover.
Luang Prabang was the perfect antidote after the debauchery of Vang Vieng. Sleepy little town by the river, a lot of French architecture from the colonial era, as well as being one of the hearts of Lao culture. Checked out a few temples, saw the monks doing their early morning tour, highlight was definitely visiting Kuang Si waterfalls. Awesome series of waterfalls, feeding down into turquoise blue water pools, where I was again able to fulfill my new-found penchant for jumping off really high things into water.
Hanoi & Halong Bay (Vietnam)
Caught a flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi to avoid a 30 hour overland journey and save a bit more time in a tight schedule. Lost a few traveler points on that one, but then I already had quite a few in the bag from plenty of cattle class travel in India… But still, generally I prefer to travel with the locals, much more of an experience.
Split up with Lace in Hanoi who was going to hook up with his girlfriend for 8 or 9 days. Just me, my backpack and my wits again for a few days. Although there are some drawbacks, exciting traveling on my own again for a bit. It's nice to have been able to do a bit of both solo travel and travel with a mate from home. Found Hanoi a busy, pretty chaotic place after the tranquility of Luang Prabang Swarms of scooters and mopeds buzzing around in every direction, a not particularly aesthetically pleasing place. Went down to Lenin Park early one morning to watch locals of all ages doing their tai chi routines, working out, socializing etc. Went to Hoa Lo prison to see where the French used to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries, and later the Vietnamese used to hold captured American airman - notably senator John McCain, who tried to commit suicide twice while inside.
From Hanoi went on a 2 day / 1 night tour to Halong bay, staying on a large, comfortable wooden boat - known as a junk. In a sign of my going travel snobbery, or maybe just simply old age, decided against the party boat for something a bit more relaxed, wanted to properly take in what is a world heritage sight. Weather wasn't brilliant but we still got a good impression of the place. A huge bay dotted with massive limestone rocks, in a way the overcast weather for the most part added a bit more atmosphere. Unexpectedly stopped off at floating village on day 1 (the one from Top Gear, think it was at the end of the scooter trip through 'Nam), where people live 365 days a year on the water, pretty nuts. Also checked out some caves and did a spot of kayaking on the bay also during the tour. Nice food on the trip again, and everything all in was 60 USD, pretty good value. Good bunch of Westerners on the boat, together with a Vietnamese honey-mooning couple, accompanied by the bride's parents - f**k that!
Took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hoi An, via Danang, arriving 12th Dec. Roughed it in the 6 in a cabin 'hard sleeper' class (so named as the beds are harder than the 4 to a cabin
'soft sleeper') but in reality the journey was pretty sweet, the Vietnamese I shared the cabin with were all pretty cool and friendly, even without much English between them. Checked into a hostel - first dorm room of the trip (hardly any about in Asia so far) - then immediately went on a mission to get a suit tailored. With over 200 tailors in Hoi An, it's one of the cheapest places in the world to get a fitted suit. Ended up getting a bit excited and by the end of the day ended up getting 2 shirts and a jacket in addition, all made to measure for me overnight.
Loved Hoi An as a place, really picturesque. Charming town on the river with lots of quaint French colonial era architecture, interspersed with ancient Vietnamese and Chinese temples. Really good atmosphere about the place, a beach only 5km away too, hired a bicycle for my time there so only 10 mins away. Good fun buzzing around the town on a bike again. Met some cool people and drunk for a couple of nights in a great bar called 'Before & Now' - really popular with everyone despite constantly playing tunes like Nirvana B Side Even in His Youth, Soulfly, Faith No More's Epic, First it Giveth by QOTSA etc…I was loving it!
Flew down to Nha Trang on the 17th and head off to Saigon tomorrow to hook up with Lacey again to see some of this war business. The War museum's supposed to be pretty gruesome but fascinating no doubt, looking forward to it. Going to check out some of the Viet Cong's warren of war tunnels too. Then it's Cambodia and Christmas in Siem Reap! Enjoying Vietnam, have met a few travelers with horror stories about muggings and being beaten up the locals but I haven't really seen any of that myself, just got to keep your wits about you. The Vietnamese people seem a bit more aggressive and deceitful than the people of Northern Thailand and Laos, they're constantly trying to overcharge/underchange you - but there's still a few gems out there.
Hope everyone's well at home, Merry Christmas and all that! It's now the 17th and I got a bus to catch….